Literature and the nation

As is often recognized, and as is clearly demonstrated in the data we present in Quotations, the OED particularly favoured quotations from literary sources. This was an unexceptional bias to hold at the time, and entirely in keeping with (what was to become) OED’s status as a national icon.

Great works written in the past were seen as the storehouse of the nation’s culture and as the way to access the accumulated wisdom of the past. This was an unremarkable truism and often repeated: for example by Henry Reeve, editor of the influential periodical Edinburgh Review, in an article on the first volume of the OED (letters AB), together with the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography:

The prime duty and glory of literature is to be the storehouse and guardian of knowledge. There are thousands of readers who quench their thirst for novelty with the trifles and ephemeral productions of the hour [i.e. newspapers], which are but the surf on the edge of the rising tide; but they forget that the treasure-house of literature lies behind them, and that nothing is worthy of a permanent place within our walls but that which belongs to the records of our race and the creative powers of wise and far-searching minds.1

Reeve 1889: 328

The view that literature was in some sense the apotheosis of language was widely held. In the first of his popular lectures on language, the influential American linguist William Dwight Whitney (quoted in Fossil poetry) urged the connection between the two:

The great body of literary works of acknowledged merit and authority, in the midst of a people proud and fond of it, is an agent in the preservation and transmission of any tongue, the importance of which cannot be easily over-estimated.

Whitney 1867: 23

These ideas had been vigorously expounded by a second American linguist, George Perkins Marsh, who in 1859 took on the responsibility for coordinating voluntary readers for the OED in the US, issuing an appeal reproduced in the OED Online archive ( [accessed 29 August 2019]).2

In another popular and much reprinted series of lectures on language, delivered during the year of his OED appeal and first published in 1860, Marsh draws a clear, strong link between great literature and the nation:

The importance of a permanent literature, of authoritative standards of expression, and, especially, of those great, lasting works of the imagination, which, in all highly-cultivated nations constitute the ‘volumes paramount’ of their literature, has been too generally appreciated to require here argument or illustration. Suffice it to say, they are among the most potent agencies in the cultivation of the national heart and mind, the strongest bond of union in a homogeneous people, the surest holding ground against the shifting currents, the ebb and flow, of opinion and taste.

The Anglo-Saxon race is fortunate in possessing more such volumes paramount than any other modern people….Now, all these books have been for centuries a daily food, an intellectual pabulum, that actually has entered into and moulded the living thought and action of gifted nations; and, in the case of the Anglican people, it will not be disputed that, working as they have, all in one direction, their great poets have been more powerful than any other secular influence in first making, and then keeping, the Englishman and American what they are, what for hundreds of years they have been, what, God willing, for thousands of years they shall be, the pioneer race in the march of man towards the highest summits of worthy human achievement.

Marsh 1860: 17-18

Marsh’s allusion to ‘volumes paramount’ is a reference to Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Great Men have been among us’, composed in 1802 and published in 1807, which describes how great writers of the past ‘knew how genuine glory was put on; / Taught us how rightfully a nation shone / In splendor…’. By contrast, Wordsworth says, France had ‘No single Volume paramount, no code, / No master spirit, no determined road; / But equally a want of Books and Men!’ (Wordsworth 2000: 276, 708n.).3

Unsurprisingly, there was a corresponding public expectation that the OED should act as a treasure-house of its great literary writers, in this respect following in Richardson’s footsteps (see Treasure). Such a view was reflected in the Oxford University Press release marking OED’s completion in 1928: ‘it is a Dictionary not of our English, but of all English: the English of Chaucer, of the Bible, and of Shakespeare’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 312).

Resistance to non-literary quotations

The connection between great literature, language, and the job of the nation’s Dictionary explains some of the arguments that took place between the editor J. A. H. Murray and the Oxford University Press Delegates in 1883 over the provenance of quotation sources. The Delegates ‘ruled that slang terms and scientific words should both be limited to such as were found in literature’; Murray wanted to draw on a wider range (and had no time to search out new quotations from ‘famous writers’ when he had perfectly adequate evidence already; see K. M. E. Murray 1977: 221ff.). Similar protests against words and quotations from insufficiently elevated sources were made by early reviewers, with newspapers often a focus of complaint; newspapers were widely seen as objectionable breeding grounds for improper and unregulated language.

As Jürgen Schäfer remarked in 1980, ‘the OED was clearly conceived as an aid to reading great literature, a fact which has proved a boon for the literary scholar’. However, as Schäfer also pointed out, ‘for the linguist…this policy leads to distortion and makes it necessary…to approach the OED with caution’ (Schäfer 1980: 13).

See further Literary sources.

Last updated on 13 August 2020


  1. There may be a slippage here between one sense of ‘literature’, identified by OED s.v. 3. a.: ‘Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general’, and a differentiated sense given in the second part of the same definition: ‘Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect’. Whitney and Marsh, however (see further on this page), are clearly referring to works of the imagination rather than a general body of writings.
  2. Marsh (1801-1882) was a linguist and diplomat based in Vermont, remembered today as one of America’s first environmentalists. At some stage he took over sub-editorship of the letter ‘H’ for Furnivall (see F. J. F.’s notebook).
  3. We are most grateful to Elizabeth Knowles for identifying this reference.