Literary sources


Many critics have noted OED’s apparent preference for literary sources. Dennis Taylor writes: ‘It is a lexicographical truism that…the OED‘s reliance on literary quotations is problematic because it skews the representative character of the sampling’. One result, he says, is that the OED is ‘the greatest of all literary echo-chambers in our language’ (Taylor 1993: 6). Evidence on the importance of literary sources for OED pervades the Dictionary’s own entries. It can also be seen in larger-scale analyses, for example OED Online’s own list of 1,000 thousand quoted authors and works (discussed in our OED3 section in Policy and practice), or our pages on Top sources under Quotations.

This section of the site examines some of the main issues involved in the OED’s fondness for literary sources, including literary writers’ reciprocal fondness for dictionaries. 

Summary information on the treatment of literary sources in OED’s successive editions can be found on Policy and practice while Literature and the lexicon briefly identifies some of the initial questions raised by turning to the language of poets and other creative writers for evidence on the history of language use. Lexicographical reservations reports qualms on quoting from literary sources expressed by the OED lexicographers themselves.

Under Literary issues, we look at the OED’s reliance (conscious or not) on a canon of writers (The canon), followed by brief consideration of the use of indexes and concordances at various stages of compiling the Dictionary (Indexes and inconsistencies). The third page discusses one of the difficult issues involved in using literary sources as dictionary evidence, namely the highly connotative characteristics of literary language in relation to the denotatory aims of dictionary definitions (Connotation vs. denotation).

Writers and Dictionaries considers the reciprocal relationship between the two, taking Auden as an initial example. A shorter account of Joyce follows and a page on the Scottish poet and dictionary reader Hugh Macdiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve) is in preparation.

The final section, on Other literary authors quoted in the OED, will, we hope, be expanded over 2019-2020. So far there is a page on Pope, and another is in preparation on Shakespeare.

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