Historical background

Overview

It is impossible to understand, appreciate and interpret OED without knowing a good deal about its history. The pages in this section of the site contextualize the fundamental importance of quotations in creating the Dictionary by looking at past models, contemporary 19th-century lexicographical and intellectual culture, and methodological and practical matters – including the influence of the eventual publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP).

This section begins with the two most important English language predecessors to the OED, Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 and Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language of 1836-7. OED’s intellectual climate follows, explaining the context for the emergence of a revolutionary new dictionary of English at the end of the 1850s.  

We turn to the gradual materialization of the first edition of the OED and its first Supplement in OED1’s compilation. This looks at some of the key stages marking the Dictionary’s progress from the late 1850s to publication of its last instalment in 1928, while OED1’s completion reproduces documents on Oxford University Press’s celebration of this event and on the Dictionary’s first Supplement. The Supplement appeared almost straightaway in 1933 – already long overdue by the 1920s given the length of time the parent dictionary had taken to be published.

An associated account of the process of collecting quotations for OED1 is to be found under our main section on Quotations: see OED1 quotation collection and its pages on Initial aims, Initial practice, and Early progress.

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