OED1’s compilation

The documents and links in this section, described in the summary commentary below, track some of the stages involved in setting up and compiling the Philological Society’s New English Dictionary (the original title of the OED). Suggestions for Further reading follow at the foot of the page. 

In 1857, the Society created a committee consisting of Herbert Coleridge, F. J. Furnivall, and R. C. Trench, ‘to collect unregistered words in English’. During the course of this work, Trench delivered two lectures to the Society in November 1857, setting out the case for a new dictionary of English which would remedy the deficiencies of existing dictionaries. These were subsequently published in a single document called ‘On some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries’. The second edition of this publication in 1860 can be read on Google books. See also the OED Online website’s link to the same document, which provides a helpful list of contents. [Both links accessed 13 August 2019].

Originally, the Philological Society had planned simply to organize the collection and record of the ‘unregistered words’ identified by Trench and others, and had already enlisted volunteers to this end. Persuaded by the arguments and evidence in Trench’s lectures, however, they swiftly perceived the inadequacy of this scheme and decided instead to embark on a new dictionary altogether. More detail can be found in the Historical Introduction to the edition of OED published in 1933 and also in Gilliver 2016.

After further investigations and some initial editorial work, the Committee published the Proposal for the Publication of a New English Dictionary by the Philological Society in 1859, reproduced on the first page in this section. In the same year, an appeal was made by George Marsh to American writers to contribute to the Dictionary, specifically by reading 18th-century sources (in which it was thought that British readers would be less interested; cf. discussion of the 18th-century dip in quotation sources for the OED in our page 1700-1799 in OED1/2 in Period coverage). Marsh’s appeal is archived on the OED website under the title Appeal for American readers [accessed 13 August 2019].

In 1860 Herbert Coleridge, now established as editor, reported on progress in an ‘Open Letter’ to Trench in May 1860. This was published as an Appendix to Trench’s lectures and can also be read on the OED website) [accessed 13 August 2019]. 

In this he famously forecast:

I confidently expect, unless any unforeseen accident should occur to paralyze our efforts, that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number to the world. Indeed, were it not for the dilatoriness of many contributors, who promise anything and everything, but postpone performance indefinitely, neither assisting us themselves, nor enabling us to assign the books they have taken to other and better helpers, I should not hesitate to name an earlier period.

Coleridge 1860: 77

Evidence in the OED archives, a selection of which is reproduced in the following pages, illuminates the initial quotation collecting and processing procedures for the Dictionary. After Coleridge’s death in 1861, these were taken over with energy and enthusiasm by Furnivall. Owing partly to Furnivall’s personality, however, and partly to his commitments and engagements elsewhere, the project was not properly supervised and looked to be in danger of stalling.

Our copy of pages from one of F. J. Furnivall’s notebooks shows an early list of dictionary readers and their allotted texts. Also included are samples from one of the book lists he produced for OED readers in 1861.

By 1878, Furnivall was negotiating with Oxford University Press to publish the new Dictionary, and the Press took advice from one of its Delegates, the Sanskritist Professor Max Müller (see Müller’s advice). The Press took over the Dictionary in the same year and and appointed James Murray as editor in 1879. Murray immediately issued an Appeal for volunteer readers (published in three editions 1879-80), reproduced once more on the OED Online archived document pages [accessed 13 August 2019]. His Directions to readers are on the EOED site.

OED Online also links to a copy of Murray’s ‘Romanes’ lecture on ‘The Evolution of English Lexicography’, delivered to an Oxford audience in 1900 [accessed 22 January 2019]. This runs through the history of English dictionaries and explains why the new one he was editing was so important.

Murray died in 1915, at the age of 78, having just completed on time a double section of the Dictionary, covering entries in the range ‘Trink’ to ‘Turndown’. He had been responsible for ‘more than half of the English vocabulary, comprising all the words beginning with the letters A-D, H-K, O-P, and all but a fraction of those beginning with T’, as described in the obituary published in The Periodical of 15 September 1915 (p. 198), reproduced on EOED.

It was a further thirteen years before publication of the first edition of OED came to an end in 1928. Go to OED1’s completion for OED’s celebration of the event.

Further reading

A wealth of information on the history of OED – including further documents and photos – can be found in Caught in the Web of Words (K. M. E. Murray 1977) and The Making of the OED (Gilliver 2016). See also the information and documentation in Darrell Raymond’s Dispatches from the Front (1987). This reproduces the Prefaces to the original volumes and fascicles of the first edition of the OED and contains some interesting tables summarizing some of the statistical data available in the Prefaces. The publication can be viewed at http://www.darrellraymond.com/prefaces and also downloaded as a PDF [accessed 13 August 2019].

Other histories of the OED include Simon Winchester’s two popular trade books (Winchester 1998 and 2003) and Mugglestone 2005.

OED editors in 1915, after the death of Murray.

Last updated on 10 January 2020