Writers and dictionaries

The relationship between writers and dictionaries has been complex and fruitful. Many dictionaries (particularly the first edition of the OED and the 20th-century Supplement) have used literary sources as evidence of usage. Writers in their turn have been fascinated by dictionaries and have drawn on them in composing their poems, novels and other texts. On occasion, the OED has even quoted instances of usage from dictionary-reading writers who have found the words concerned either in the OED itself or in another dictionary.

This page opens the section on Writers and dictionaries by outlining some aspects of OED’s role in recording literary usages of the past, thus influencing literary choices made by writers reading its pages. A brief notice of the comparable role of Johnson’s Dictionary is followed by paragraphs on T. S. Eliot’s remarks on dictionaries (Tradition and innovation), the OED as treasure-house, and as Raw material of possible poems and histories.

Further pages in this section discuss Auden as a specific example of the relationship between the OED and individual writers, including of ‘lexicographical loops‘, where the OED reciprocally quotes dictionary-inspired usages in writers. Pages on Joyce and Macdiarmid are in preparation. For the OED’s own use of word-books, see Dictionaries in our Topics section.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) 

Following the example of earlier European dictionaries and encyclopedias, Johnson selected the quotations for his Dictionary from a body of major literary and philosophical writers from up to two hundred years previous to his own time (see Pleasure and instruction in our pages on Johnson in Historical background). By recording their language in this way he hoped to influence the usage of modern writers – or as he put it, to ‘contribute to the preservation of antient, and the improvement of modern writers’ (Johnson 1958-: vol. 13, p. 57). Johnson printed the following lines from one of Horace’s Epistles as an epigraph to his dictionary on the title page (click on the image below to read the original Latin):

Johnson’s title page, 1755. Source: British Library

[The good poet] will do well to unearth words that have been long hidden

from the people’s view, bringing to light some splendid terms

employed in earlier days by Cato, Cethegus and others

which now lie buried by grimy dust and the years’ neglect;1

and Horace’s words remind us that writers as well as lexicographers may wish to preserve language, and by re-using a word keep it alive or even resurrect it from the past.

OED has repeatedly been used for this purpose by writers. The Supplement editor Robert Burchfield’s description of the work in 1962 as a ‘literary instrument’ suggests not only its role as key to writers of the past, but also its function as quarry for writers of the future. Burchfield later remarked, ‘in the nicest possible way, poets scavenge where they can’, giving instances from T. S. Eliot. One of the Supplement staff, the novelist Julian Barnes, described Auden’s scavenging in this respect as treating the OED less respectfully, ‘not as a Supreme Court but as a flea-market where cast-offs can be acquired at little expense.’2

T. S. Eliot on tradition and innovation

T S Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Source: British Library

The regenerative and formative role of a writer in the development of language is several times meditated on by T. S. Eliot. In a BBC radio discussion with the producer Desmond Hawkins, broadcast at a time of national crisis in November 1940, Eliot drew a parallel between the greatness of a nation and the greatness of its language which is reminiscent of 19th-century views (see Literature and the nation), emphasizing the role played by the writer in sustaining existing verbal traditions and developing them further:

If a nation to be great must have a great language, it is the business of the writer as artist to help to preserve and extend the resources of that language.

Eliot 1940: 773-74

Such a person must prevent ‘the language from deteriorating or from getting ossified’, helping ‘to choose, from among the new words and idioms in current speech and in current journalism, those which justify themselves, which deserve to be fully licensed and preserved.’

But writers do not do this on their own: there is ‘a continuous collaboration between the few who can write it and everybody who speaks it’, a collaboration which is recorded – Eliot’s interlocutor Hawkins suggests – in the pages of the dictionary, a book in part written by the ‘non-literary dead’, ‘the ancestral Man-in-the-Street’, ‘the ones who weren’t writers’. The dictionary, Hawkins continues, is thus ‘a book to which every professional writer is infinitely indebted’.

‘Quite so,’ Eliot replies, and proceeds to develop the idea:

The dictionary is the most important, the most inexhaustible book to a writer. Incidentally, I find it the best reading in the world when I am recovering from influenza, or any other temporary illness, except that one needs a bookrest for it across the bed. You want a big dictionary, because definitions are not enough by themselves: you want the quotations showing how a word has been used ever since it was first used.

This tempts one to think that Eliot was thinking of the OED, but Valerie Eliot confirmed to Burchfield in 1988 that ‘her husband possessed a copy of the Shorter Oxford but not of the OED itself’.3

Eliot makes a similar point elsewhere, when he explains the relationship between (literary) tradition – as is traced in the OED’s pages – and literary innovation, specifying James Joyce, a notable reader of dictionaries, as an exponent of both:

Whatever words a writer employs, he benefits by knowing as much as possible of the history of these words, of the uses to which they have already been applied. Such knowledge facilitates his task in giving to the word a new life and to the language a new idiom. The essential of tradition is in this; in getting as much as possible of the whole weight of the history of the language behind his word. Not every good writer need be conscious of this…Mr Joyce at least has not only the tradition but the consciousness of it.

Eliot 1922: 40

Eliot’s requirement that ‘the whole weight of the history of the language’ should lie behind a writer’s choice of words is supplied in two distinct ways by the OED. Firstly, as he said in his 1940 radio broadcast, ‘you want the quotations showing how a word has been used ever since it was first used’ – something splendidly on offer in the long banks of chronologically ordered quotations, many from notable exponents of literature. This is to see the OED as a treasure-house of great writers (see next section). Secondly, as discussed in the next section but one, OED’s vast numbers of entries provide the Raw material of possible poems and histories.

OED as treasure-house

OED’s repeated citation of traditional canonical authors is particularly valuable for writers and readers seeking to understand and experience that canon. Entry after entry in the OED provides a ‘genealogy of sentiments’ (to use Johnson’s term) illustrating possible relationships between a succession of culturally linked writers through the ages.4

A section of today’s OED Online entry for shame, unchanged since first publication in 1913, is reproduced below as an example; any reader of OED can turn up many hundreds of others in random browsing of the work in online or print form.

Extract from OED Online’s entry for shame, n. (sense 3c)
Source: screenshot from OED Online 8 August 2019

The quoted authorities here, La3amon, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Defoe, Byron, Scott and Tennyson, are all cited thousands of times in the OED. The cumulative effect, particularly in entries relating to social customs and values such as this one, is both powerful and culturally homogeneous. It is for reasons such as this that the OED has been described as ‘a treasure-house of the language’, ‘at once a history of thought and of our civilization’, an object of fascination both to authors themselves and to others seeking to understand the role of great writers in sustaining the cultural values communicated through the choice of words.5

Raw material of possible poems and histories

The suggestive powers of dictionaries for poets and authors have been observed by many writers. The American essayist R. W. Emerson believed that:

neither is a dictionary a bad book to read. There is no cant in it, no excess of explanation, and it is full of suggestion. The raw material of possible poems and histories.

This remark was chosen by Murray in 1895 as one of the illustrative quotations for the OED entry for dictionary.6

In 1928, celebrating the completion of the OED, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin exclaimed on the same characteristic: ‘our histories, our novels, our poems, our plays – they are all in this one book’ (Speeches, p. 10). Years later, the novelist E. Annie Proulx echoed Emerson in her characterisation of the OED in 2003: ‘Here is the greatest treasure of words waiting to be assembled…All the raw material a writer needs for a lifetime of work’.7

Oliver Wendell Holmes had explained one of the reasons why in 1831:

When I feel inclined to read poetry I take down my Dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and lustre have been given by the attrition of ages. Bring me the finest simile and I will show you a single word which conveys a more profound, a more accurate, and a more eloquent analogy.

quoted Micklethwait 2000: 103-4

thus anticipating Trench’s later musings on Emerson’s term ‘fossil poetry’: ‘Many a single word also is itself a concentrated poem, having stores of poetical thought and imagery laid up in it’. The OED also liked the formulation ‘fossil poetry’ and found two occasions to use it in the Dictionary – under characterization (published 1889) and fossil (1897). In the interim the idea had been echoed by Max Müller, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford and adviser to the OED: ‘every word, if carefully examined, will turn out to be itself a petrified poem’ (Müller 1888: x; see further Fossil poetry).

Crinoid fossil. Source: Ohio Geological Survey

Auden said much the same in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry in Oxford in 1956 (perhaps attended by OED editor R. W. Burchfield, who was lecturer at Christ Church, Auden’s college, at the time), when he remarked that ‘the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology, the study of language in abstraction from its uses, so that words become, as it were, little lyrics about themselves’ (Auden 1963: 35).

One way in which words can be thought of as ‘little lyrics about themselves’ is in etymological terms: the way a word’s philological components tell a story about its development through time. This brings us straight back to the OED, whose individual entries on words might, however fancifully, be thought of as ‘poems’, often containing miniature essays on etymology as well as the chronologically ordered network of quotations illustrating a word’s use in (canonical) literary sources. The same imagery is used by the current editor of the OED, John Simpson: ‘I sometimes tell people that each OED entry should be a type of poem – a structured stone in a larger mosaic’ (communication to the author).

See further Brewer 2010a and Brewer 2019 forthcoming, from which material for this page has been drawn; also Considine 2009. On the interest of poets in etymology, which evidently predates the OED, see Ruthven 1969.

Last updated on 4 September 2020


  1. Last four lines of Horace, Epistles, 2.2.110-18; translation from Rudd 2005. Jacob Grimm, first editor of the German national dictionary, Deutsches Wörterbuch (1854-1961), also used quotations ‘to put before the nation the wealth and poetic force of [the German language] so that writers and poets could see and learn what was available’ (Ganz 1973: 21, quoting a letter from Grimm to Karl Lachmann).
  2. See Burchfield 1989: 68; Barnes 1982: 21.
  3. Burchfield had suspected as much, given that the title-page of Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) bore an epigraph ‘purporting to be the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for sense 1 of the word definition. In fact it was from the Shorter [i.e. the Shorter OED, the single volume abridgement of the OED published in 1933]’ (Burchfield 1989: 61; 79 n. 1). See Eliot 1940, also quoted in Taylor 1993: 234; see also Taylor 1993: chapter 1.
  4. For Johnson, see our page on ‘Genealogy of sentiments’. The role of great writers in the OED has been repeatedly stressed by the publishers as well as (on occasion) the lexicographers; see the OED2 publicity brochure reproduced in our page on Policy and practice.
  5. Quotations from reviews of the OED reported in the OUP publicity brochure for OED2 (1989).
  6. For the original context, see the reproduction of Emerson’s essay, ‘Books’, on the Ralph Waldo Emerson site at http://www.rwe.org/chapter-viii-books/ [accessed 8 August 2019].
  7. Quoted from the OUP publicity brochure for OED2 (1989).