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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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18c dip
Note: Fuller discussion of the eighteenth-century dip now appears in our page on the 18th century under Period coverage.

Relative number of quotations for 16c, 17c, 18c, 19c
18c dip

The same data as OED quotations per decade 1500-1899, differently displayed and showing that the 18th century is less well represented than might be expected. What are the various possible explanations for this?  One may be that the British volunteer readers on which the dictionary has always been crucially dependent were simply not very keen on reading 18th-century sources.

Were 19th-century British readers unenthusiastic readers of 18th-century literature?
The OED archives contain evidence which support this explanation. As early as 1859, Herbert Coleridge, first editor of the OED, and grandson of the poet, wrote
'the Americans should make themselves responsible for the whole of the eighteenth century literature, which probably would have less chance of finding as many readers in England'.
This view was published in an open letter printed at the end of Trench's famous article 'On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries' which sparked off the creation of the OED (see http://www.oed.com/archive/paper-deficiencies/p72.html; http://www.oed.com/public/appeal59/appeals-for-american-readers [both accessed 04 April 2011]).

Coleridge added, 'no results of their labours have reached me as yet', and in fact very little seems to have come of the initial plea to the US.

New appeal for 18th-century reading
So twenty years later, when the new editor of the Dictionary, James Murray, took up office, he issued an Appeal for volunteer readers and contributors which specified the 18th century as in especial need of quotation evidence:
'...it is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed. The American scholars promised to get the eighteenth-century literature taken up in the United States, a promise which they appear not to have to any extent fulfilled, and we must now appeal to English readers to share the task, for nearly the whole of that century's books, with the exception of Burke's works, have still to be gone through' (http://www.oed.com/public/appeal79/april-1879-appeal#3 [accessed 8 April 2011]).
The indications of the material presented on this site are that Murray's new appeal did not bring 18th-century coverage up to the same standard – or at least density – as that of other centuries. No doubt further examination of the tastes and predilections of 19th-century readers will shed light on this...

For initial study of these issues, see Brewer 2006, 2007a; see also our page on the 18th century under Period coverage.
Last Updated ( Friday, 08 April 2011 )
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