Müller’s advice 1878

Under Furnivall’s editorship of the Society’s Dictionary, many years passed without much obvious progress. Around 1877, Furnivall was in negotiation both with the schoolmaster James Murray to take over the editorship and with Oxford University Press to publish the result. The Press asked one of its Delegates, Max Müller, to advise on the proposed scheme.

His report, of May 1878, is reproduced below (only the first two pages survive). Müller fully grasped the Dictionary’s potential and its linguistic and national importance. Significantly, he saw that the new Dictionary would be likely to make money for the Press but that that could not be the most important consideration. He identifies two main problems: which works had been chosen as sources for the quotations? and how had the words for record been selected?

We discuss this document in its historical context at Early progress; for a fuller account of Furnivall’s negotiations at this stage see K. M. E. Murray 1977: 148-53. The questions Müller raises, both central to the Dictionary, are ones which our project Examining the OED continues to explore in its investigation of OED’s variable coverage of sources and periods. OUP decided to take over full reponsibility for the Dictionary in the same year and appointed James Murray as editor in 1879.

NB Müller refers at the end of the document to ‘a list of the more important works not yet finished, or altogether omitted’. So far this has not turned up the OED archives.

‘Observations by Professor Max Müller on the Lists of Readers and Books Read for the Proposed English Dictionary’1

Last updated on 10 January 2020


  1. Privately printed for the Delegates of the Press; reproduced by permission from the Secretary to the Delegates. See also K. M. E. Murray 1977: 151.