The first edition of OED (OED1) was initially published in successive instalments between 1884 and 1928. It was re-issued in 1933 with a Supplement and a bibliography.1 OED1 remains the backbone of today’s OED. This is why its history and its characteristics are still so relevant, despite the publication of a second edition in 1989 and the gradual release of a third edition from 2000. It is also why so many pages on the EOED website are devoted to its description and analysis.2
This revolutionary New English Dictionary, as it was first called, set out to record every word in the English language from its first printed use onwards, furnishing each of its entries with information on etymology, spelling variants, pronunciation, and definitions of the original and all subsequent senses. In this way, the OED aimed to provide a ‘biography’ of every word, as its chief editor James Murray described in his Oxford Romanes lecture of 1900 (1900: 47).
Of course it was impossible to achieve this purpose in full. From the early days of editing the lexicographers had to make decisions on excluding words as well as including them, and for a whole host of reasons they could not, or did not, provide full evidence on all relevant aspects of a word. Sometimes this was because the scholarship did not as yet exist, sometimes because space or other logistics didn’t allow, sometimes human error was to blame, and sometimes the social and legal conventions of the time meant that the editors were affected by pressures and prejudices we would now identify as racist, sexist, or in other ways culturally restrictive.
Nevertheless, the result was a work of literally incomparable quality and value. To this day, the OED is an unrivalled account of the history and development of vocabulary in English (largely in the UK), if not ‘the definitive record of the English language’ that the publishers currently claim in the strapline to every page on OED Online. Any reader can see the results for themselves by browsing through a series of entries on the printed page or on a screen: the range and detail of the information provided, and the sheer size of the work in its entirety, are overwhelming.
The limitations to OED1’s comprehensiveness and reliability are just as interesting as its scholarly triumphs. To understand both, it is important to bear in mind the conditions under which the Dictionary was first edited and published. As explained at Quotations, the OED’s evidential basis was its collection of around five million quotations from printed texts recording the use of English from 1150 to the present, the bulk of which have been retained as the basis for today’s OED too.
The effort involved in assembling then processing these vast quantities of quotation evidence was considerable, not to say heroic. First proposed in 1859 (the same year as the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, whose commitment to historical evidence it shared), the Dictionary took many years to get on its feet and did not appear in print until 1884, after which it worked through the alphabet instalment by instalment until completion forty-four years later in 1928.
For excerption of quotations both from these texts and from all others, the editors were crucially reliant on an army of volunteers, rustled up by a succession of public appeals, who had to be trained in some minimal but adequate way, and whose contributions had to be harvested and checked by teams of more experienced and qualified editors and sub-editors. Over the years many contributors and editors died or moved on, which made continuity and consistency in editorial practice virtually impossible. It was not until the late 1870s that the dictionary achieved institutional and editorial stability, when the project (originally conceived and managed by members of the London Philological Society) was taken over by Oxford University Press (OUP) and the chief editor James Murray appointed. From then onwards, however, the lexicographers – principally Murray himself, but also his co-editors in chief Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and C. T. Onions – engaged in constant struggle with the publishers, the former determined to produce as full and perfect a dictionary as possible, and the latter seeking to bring the work to conclusion, so as to minimize the burdens of salary and administration. Contemplating what he regarded as ‘the natural dilatoriness of lexicographers’, the OUP publisher Kenneth Sisam observed, ‘It is the exception for any huge dictionary to be finished.…Have you ever found a reason why a sane man should start on one of these enterprises unless he is comfortably paid and housed? Or why, if he is comfortably provided for, he should ever finish it?’3
Finished it was, however, and received deserved acclaim both from linguists and from the general public as (for its time) a definitive account of the history of English vocabulary – and by extension, of the history and culture of the nation too.
The latter response was largely due, as with Johnson’s dictionary, to its munificent display of quotations; reviewers often described this ‘vast storehouse of the words and phrases that constitute the vocabulary of the English-speaking people’ as ‘a history of English speech and thought from its infancy to the present day’, or ‘a history of thought and civilization’. This combination of scholarship, comprehensiveness, manifest cultural value, size, and cost – to the editors and publishers rather than to the buying public, though the dictionary was never cheap to buy – meant that the OED has dominated English language lexicography ever since.
For more information, see pages in OED1 intellectual climate, OED1 compilation and OED1 completion, all in EOED’s Historical background section, along with much of the content of the Quotations section.
Last updated on 9 October 2019
- See OED compilation and OED completion in our Historical background section.
- See Site map for a complete list of EOED pages. For an account of OED1’s place in the history of English lexicography, see Brewer 2019, on which this page partly draws.
- Letter to D. M. Davin, OED archives (OUP/BoxOP1713/PB/ED/012869), 10 July 1954.