Patriotism had been a significant element in the creation of Johnson’s dictionary. Johnson said in his Preface:

I have devoted this book, the labour of years, to the honour of my country, that we may no longer yield the palm of philology without a contest to the nations of the continent

Johnson 2015: 109

and his contemporaries were triumphantly conscious of the national capital his dictionary embodied. Johnson’s former pupil David Garrick (the actor) composed a complimentary epigram for the dictionary to accompany its publication, printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine and elsewhere, which lauded English prowess over French whether by the sword or the pen:

Johnson, well-arm’d like a hero of yore

Has beat forty French and will beat Forty more!’

Boswell 1934, vol. 1: 301

– his point being that the forty-five members of the French Royal Academy had spent forty years compiling the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1694), while Johnson had completed his great work in a mere seven.1

Richardson, too, felt his dictionary to be part of a mission of imperial hegemony and expansion:

‘The treasures of our tongue’ are spread over continents…The sun, indeed, now never sets upon the Empire of Great Britain….Such being the facts, upon which Englishmen may delight to dwell, I may myself be suffered to avow a peculiar gratification in the plan upon which this Dictionary has been composed. It is a copious and careful record of the Language from its earliest state; it contains the choicest sentiments of English wisdom, poetry, and eloquence; it may be deemed a supplial of many books; and as such merely it may be estimated at higher worth in foreign climes than on its native shores.

Early instalments of it ‘have found a resting place on the banks of La Plata…are admitted to relieve the languor of military inaction at the Mess of Abednuggar…have already found employment for the acuteness of nearly a century of critics in the United States of America’

A New Dictionary of the English Language vol. 1, Preliminary Essay, p. 61

It is not just the record of words which Richardson adduces to substantiate his claim to his dictionary’s worth, but its store of quotations (‘choicest sentiments’), which help it to supply the place of the English books from which the quotations have come (Richardson’s use of ‘supplial’ here is the only quotation for this sense in OED). These quotations both represent and promulgate the English-speaking culture now dominating the globe.

By the time OED-originator R. C. Trench was writing in the 1850s and onwards, the connection between language and patriotism was transparent. On the first pages of English Past and Present, one of his two collections of popular lectures on language, reprinted many times during OED’s long compilation, Trench asks:

The love of our own language, what is it in fact but the love of our country expressing itself in one particular direction? If the great acts of that nation to which we belong are precious to us, if we feel ourselves made greater by their greatness, summoned to a nobler life by the nobleness of Englishmen who have already lived and died…what can more clearly point out their native land and ours as having fulfilled a glorious past, as being destined for a glorious future, than that they should have acquired for themselves and for those who came after them a clear, a strong, an harmonious, a noble language?

A few lines later he quotes the German writer and philologist Friedrich Schlegel: ‘the care of the national language I consider as at all times a sacred trust and a most important privilege of the higher orders of society’ (Trench 1855: 3-5).2

The small number of English philological scholars who were knowledgeable about the intellectual advances in Europe in the study of language during the early part of the nineteenth century felt keenly their own comparative disadvantage. The London Philological Society, the body that initially set up and supported the dictionary that became the OED, frequently found itself lectured at by those of its members who had studied in Germany and were aware of England’s intellectual insularity in both philology and textual criticism. The phoneticist and Anglo-Saxon scholar Henry Sweet gave a series of presidential addresses in which he lamented the poor showing of English universities in this respect:

Where…are we to get our training? We are left to pick it up at random, often quite late in life….How different are the circumstances of the foreign student! He starts young with a thorough training, and with the certainty of full opportunity of devoting himself to his subject for the rest of his life. An undergraduate of an English University who were to announce to the Head of his College his intention of devoting himself to English philology would be regarded as a dangerous lunatic – to be repressed by any means…

Sweet 1877: 12

It was this inferiority in England’s study of its own language that the OED was to correct – just as the Philological Society’s offshoot, the Early English Text Society (EETS) founded in 1864, was to redress the imbalance between German and English editing of Old and Middle English texts (and supply OED with quotations from the formative period of the English language). F. J. Furnivall, secretary of the Philological Society from 1853 till his death in 1910, and creator of EETS, was driven by a passionate determination ‘not to rest till Englishmen shall be able to say of their Early Literature, what the Germans can now say of theirs, “every work of it’s printed and every word of it’s glossed”. England must no longer be content to lag behind’ (Brewer 1996: 72).

The message was often repeated. In 1859, in its Proposal…for a New English Dictionary, the Philological Society issued an appeal to ‘Englishmen’, observing

it is abundantly clear, that England does not possess a Dictionary worthy of her language; nor, as long as lexicography is confined to the isolated efforts of a single man, is it possible that such a work should be written. We do but follow the example of the Grimms, when we call upon Englishmen to come forward and write their own Dictionary for themselves.

p. 8

In 1861 the Athenaeum urged the public to offer their help to the new dictionary: ‘Here is temptation to many who may be desirous of aiding in the achievement of a splendid national work’; and after the first fascicle, covering letters A-Ant, was published in 1884, a reviewer in the same periodical wrote ‘Every Englishman who can possibly afford it ought to do his part in forwarding this great enterprise of national interest by purchasing the parts as they appear’ (quotations from Bailey 2000b: 210, 213, who identifies the second writer as C. A. M. Fennell).

The same argument was used in 1878 by Max Müller (1823-1900), professor of comparative philology at Oxford, Delegate of Oxford University Press, and adviser to the Press in its negotiations to take over the Dictionary from the Philological Society and appoint Murray as editor:

In an undertaking of such magnitude, in which one might almost say the national honour of England is engaged, no effort should be spared to make the work as perfect as possible, and at all events no unworthy rival of the French Dictionary recently published by Littré, or the German Dictionary undertaken by the Brothers Grimm.

Müller’s advice 18783

Müller’s notion that the Dictionary in some way represented the nation’s honour proved powerful and enduring. One of its consequences was that he and others strenuously contested Murray’s wish to include quotations from sources felt to be less than wholly worthy of that role, e.g. newspapers and other ephemera.

See further Literature and the nation.

Publication and reception of OED

Almost as soon as the first fascicles were published in 1884, OED was recognized as a significant symbol of the English (and/or British) nation and of English-speaking culture (see Bailey 2000b). In 1897 it was ‘by her gracious permission dutifully dedicated by the University of Oxford’ to Queen Victoria. Some years later, during the First World War (in which a number of OED lexicographers and publishing staff served), Oxford University Press published a pamphlet extolling the Dictionary’s virtues as, among other things, ‘An Imperial Asset’: ‘It is perhaps…in its exhibition of the language as a living and growing thing closely connected with the history of the nation, that it will yet have its greatest value for the British Empire and the whole English-speaking race’ (OUP 1916: 16).

On the Dictionary’s completion in 1928 it was presented, again by ‘gracious permission’, to George V, and a copy officially bestowed on the President of the United States. The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, delivered a stirring speech praising the Dictionary and its achievements at the celebratory banquet held in Goldmiths’ Hall, London, which was broadcast to the nation by the BBC (reproduced here at Speeches).

The OED continues in this role today. The second edition, published in 1989, was once more dedicated to the reigning monarch (Elizabeth II) by ‘gracious permission’. As The Times wrote, and Oxford University Press quoted in a publicity leaflet for OED2 released to mark this new edition of the Dictionary:

The Oxford English Dictionary is more than a national monument to lexicography. The vast storehouse of the words and phrases that constitute the vocabulary of the English-speaking people is the ultimate authority on the English language as well as a history of English speech and thought from its infancy to the present day.

These remarks indicate that, as with Richardson’s dictionary (above on this page), it is not only the list of words in the OED that somehow constitutes ‘a history of English speech and thought from its infancy to the present day’, but also the quotations themselves, in which the ‘phrases’ and ‘thought’ in the Dictionary are embedded. The quotations in the OED play a vital part in establishing the Dictionary as an icon of English-speaking culture.

See also The world and the dictionary.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. For more on Dictionnaire de l’Académie française see Considine 2014c.
  2. The Schlegel quotation was well-known, whether or not through Trench’s agency; for example it was repeated on the first page of the preface to George Washington Moon’s popular contribution to a fierce debate on English usage in the 1860s, The Dean’s English (1865). It comes from no. 10 of Schlegel’s lectures on the history of literature, Geschichte der Alten und Neuen Literatur, delivered in Vienna in 1812, published in German in 1815, and translated into English by J. G. Lockhart (1818, vol. 2, p. 58).
  3. For more information on Littré and Grimm see Osselton 2000.