First Supplement (1933)

By the time the last instalment of OED1 was published in 1928, the first – treating words beginning A-Ant, published 1884 – was long out of date. The Press was now anxious to sign off the OED project and bring to an end the cumulatively colossal expenditure of both energy and cash. The Dictionary had been a heavy burden on the Press through difficult economic times, including the First World War, and by 1928 had cost well over £300,000, then an enormous sum.1 This was despite the fact that many of its contributors were unremunerated and the salaried staff and editors chronically badly paid. 

The purpose of the 1933 Supplement, therefore, was to bring the successive instalments of the parent Dictionary up to the same end point, namely the (late) 1920s, under strict constraints of time and resources. This meant that the work was ‘wedge-shaped’: much more space needed to be devoted to updating the entries from the earlier part of the alphabet than from the later. The work was edited by the two surviving OED1 editors, W. A. Craigie, now moved to a chair at Chicago University, and C. T. Onions (Murray had died in 1915 and Bradley in 1923). Go to our page on the 1933 Supplement under Historical background to see the importance of the work for OED1’s completion: in particular, it provided an opportunity to add an Historical introduction and bibliography to the first edition.

Lumière autochrome of a Nieuport Fighter in France, 1917. Source: Wikipedia

Many of the 1933 additions reflect the momentous societal changes of the preceding decades. The new terminology of aviation was added (e.g. aerodrome, aerodynamic, aeroplane) together with a multitude of new words, or new uses of existing words, relating to munitions and politics which had entered the language in the wake of the First World War and other world events (Bolshevik, comintern, commandant, communication lines, communication trench, comrade, concentration camp, Concert of Europe, conchy, dreadnought, pacifism, profiteer, etc.). Also included were new senses for words like film, jazz, movies, pictures, talkie, and coinages such as cinema – and autochrome (see image to the left).

The volume delighted (or appalled) its readers with its unstaid hospitality to ‘Americanisms’, notably slang, as entertainingly reported by the newly elected Professor of Poetry and President of Magdalen College, G. S. Gordon (his speech can be read in The Periodical 1934: 17-33). These new entries reflected the beginnings of an increasingly inclusive view of language in English lexicography over the 20th century, as later found in Webster’s Third International Dictionary (see Morton 1994) as well as the second OED supplement.  

Deletions on p. 348 of a typescript for Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), banned in the UK for its lesbian content (the novel itself uses the term invert, newly included in the 1933 Supplement with a first quotation (1897) from the sexologist Havelock Ellis). The typescript appears to have been given by Hall to Ellis. Source: Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog. As the blog observes, the author’s depiction of ‘”inversion” is inflected with elements of what we now call transgender identity’. Click to enlarge

Other developments in OED policy can be seen in the neutral definitions for the new entries for homosexual (‘pertaining to or characterized by propensity for one’s own sex’) and related forms, also (less neutrally phrased) of invert and inverted (invert was defined as ‘one whose sex instincts are inverted’).2 OED1 definitions for vocabulary relating to non-heterosexuality had by contrast used loaded terms of description such as ‘unnatural’ and ‘vice’.3 Memos preserved in the OED archives show that the editors and publishers also discussed including the sexual sense of lesbian in the 1933 Supplement, a sense well attested in sources such as The Times newspaper, but decided against. This archival evidence is discussed in Brewer 2007b: 49-50 (a new EOED section on Sex, sexuality and gender in successive versions of the OED is in preparation, to appear in Topics).

Interestingly, the Supplement departed from its parent Dictionary in ceasing to apply the two special symbols used by OED1, the paragraph mark and ‘tramlines’ to indicate ‘catachrestic and erroneous’ and non-naturalized vocabulary respectively. Both symbols were reinstated in the Second Supplement (and in OED2) but have now disappeared altogether in OED3. The 1933 omission of the tramlines symbol has been much discussed (e.g. Ogilvie 2008b, 2013; Micklethwait 2009; cf. Brewer 2007b 197-203).

The 1933 Supplement has never been digitized. Most but not all of its contents were carried over to the Second Supplement, the much more ambitious four-volume work, edited by R. W. Burchfield and published 1972-86. For a full account of the 1933 work see Brewer 2007b chapters 2-3, also Gilliver 2016 chapter 9. The analysis by the former OED editor Sarah Ogilvie (2013) contains valuable material but should be read with some scepticism. (The author credits co-editor C. T. Onions with anachronistic anti-imperialist and liberal views, and argues that Burchfield deliberately reduced the presence of World English in the OED. On the contrary, he was the first editor to recognize its importance: see Weiner 1987 and cf. the review of Ogilvie in Brewer 2013d).

Last updated on 11 October 2019


  1. This figure is quoted in the 1928 edition of The Periodical (p. 25). According to the historian of OUP, Peter Sutcliffe (1978: 223), in 1928 ‘the debit balance appeared to be in the region of £375,000, but nobody knew quite what that meant. Overheads were not included, and the value of money had changed since the first outlay’ (no source given).
  2. The earliest quotation for the adjective homosexual found by the 1933 editors was from Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Pyschology of Sex of 1897, probably too late to have been included in the original OED1 instalment of March 1899. The adjective has since been antedated to 1891 (OED3; revised March 2018 [accessed 4 October 2019]). The sexual senses of invert and inverted added to the 1933 Supplement were also cited from Ellis’s 1897 work and have since been antedated to 1892 and 1870 respectively (OED3; revised June 2019 [accessed 4 October 2019]).
  3. Bradley had defined Sapphism in OED1 as ‘unnatural sexual relations between women’, for example, while Murray had defined tribade as ‘a woman who practises unnatural vice with other women’.