Second Supplement (1972-86)

This page starts with a brief account of the Interim period between the completion of OED in 1933 and the appointment of a new OED editor in 1957, then looks in more detail at Burchfield’s Supplement: editorial policy and practice.1

Interim period over 1933-1957

After the re-issue of the first edition of the Dictionary (OED1) in 1933, which had included a one-volume First Supplement, OUP closed down the OED project almost entirely.

Wyllie at work in the 1940s. Photo now in possession of Peter Glare

The flame was nevertheless kept burning by J. M. Wyllie, the lexicographer who had joined the OED to work on the 1933 Supplement in the late 1920s, now principally employed as editor of the new Oxford Latin Dictionary (see our Who’s who entry on J. M. Wyllie). Wyllie noted down new words along with corrections to existing entries, but owing to difficulties of various kinds was unable to carry the editorial project forward in any substantial way. In the meantime, OUP stepped up publication of the smaller Oxford dictionaries that had developed as offshoots of OED, notably the Shorter, Concise, and Little Oxford dictionaries (see further Brewer 2007b, chapter 3).

But by the late 1950s, more than twenty-five years on, the OED was painfully out of date. Thousands of new words had become established in the vocabulary over the last half-century, which were unrecorded in its pages. Less obviously to the general public, recent progress in historical lexical scholarship meant that much of OED’s pre-20th century content was also becoming outdated.

OUP was therefore faced with a difficult decision. Copies of the first edition were running low, but simply re-printing the original work as it stood was not a satisfactory solution. Should it issue a second supplement, or should it revise the Dictionary in its entirety?

The Press went for the first option, supplementation, as being quicker, cheaper, and safer. In 1957 it appointed a New Zealander medievalist, R. W. Burchfield, then a lecturer at Christ Church College Oxford, to produce a second one-volume in 7 years. As it turned out, Burchfield completed the work in 29 years, publishing 4 successive volumes in 1972 (A-G), 1975 (H-N), 1982 (O-Scz) and 1986 (Se-Z).

Burchfield’s Supplement: editorial policy and practice

Second-hand copy of Burchfield’s Supplement. Source:

Burchfield’s brief was to update the parent OED with new 20th-century words and senses, sticking closely to the lexicographical policies and practices established by Murray and his co-editors and incorporating the entries already published in the 1933 Supplement.2 He ended up doing rather more than this. He added large handfuls (now impossible to identify in any systematic way) of pre-1850 as well as post 1850 quotations, for example from Jane Austen, Charlotte Yonge, William Thackeray, and D. H. Lawrence.

More conventionally (i.e., in keeping with the widespread changes in lexicographic method in the UK and US in the later 20th century), he added copious amounts of World English vocabulary to the OED, greatly increased its representation of slang and colloquial vocabulary as well as specialist terms from the sciences, and refined and developed OED policy on labelling words – for example, terms which were offensive to ethnic and other minorities. He was determined to rid the OED of its ‘Victorian prudishness’, as he called it, and was proud to be the first editor of the OED to include the four-letter words cunt and fuck (Burchfield 1972; see image below).

Burchfield was a fierce defender of OED’s function as a ‘literary instrument’, one which paid special attention to the word choices of poets and novelists (see further our pages on The canon and on Auden in OED Supplement). He was also the first (and so far the only) OED editor to have deliberately departed from the OED’s founding principle of descriptivist lexicography, confessing with apparent pride, that

here and there in the present volume [i.e., volume 3] I have found myself adding my own opinions about the acceptability of certain words or meanings in educated use. Users of the dictionary may or may not find these editorial comments diverting; they have been added (adapting a statement from John Ray in 1691) ‘as oil to preserve the mucilage from inspissation’.  

OEDS3: Preface: v-vi. (See the EOED stub page on Usage and correctness for references to published work on this topic)
Article published by Burchfield in the Times Literary Supplement (1972: 1233) to mark the publication of OEDS1

Unsurprisingly, given the length of time over which the Supplement was prepared and its paper-based methodology, he found it difficult to be consistent in any of these policies, even drawing attention to variations in policy and practice over his four volumes. For example, he noted that words from ‘countries such as the West Indies and even Scotland…have better coverage in the range H-P [Vol. 1] than …in A-G [Vol. 2]’ (Burchfield 1975: 355).

For a full analysis of the Second Supplement’s policies and practice, see Brewer 2007b chapter 7. This looks in more detail at Burchfield’s treatment of literary language, World Englishes, scientific and technical English, and slang and colloquial terms. The chapter also discusses Burchfield’s decisions to include both more illustrative quotations and more compound and combinatorial forms than in OED1.

Illuminating and constructively critical reviews by fellow linguists were published in the TLS as the volumes successively appeared: see Strang (1974), Strang (1977), Samuels (1988), and Baker (1988). An equally illuminating review of volume 3, by the novelist and former OED editor Julian Barnes, was published in the New Statesman (Barnes 1982). On the criticism of Burchfield for supposedly diminishing the importance of World Englishes in the OED, see the brief discussion on our page on the OED First Supplement.

The TLS review of the third volume of the Supplement, by Roy Harris (1982), is valuable for its thought-provoking if outspoken attack on the OED project per se, for example the OED’s methodological assumption that meanings of words in contemporary English are definitively influenced by their individual past usage (as opposed to their relation with other words in contemporary English). It was this review that elicited Burchfield’s angry remarks on modern-day linguists – ‘linguistic burial parties’, as he called them – for rejecting past literary use as a key element in studying the grammatical and lexical features of modern English; this is quoted in our page on The canon in Literary sources. Harris’s review raises important questions about the lexicographical convention of presenting words in isolation from each other (as in an alphabetically, i.e. semantically arbitrarily, organized dictionary).

The Prefaces to the four volumes of Burchfield’s Supplement can be read online via

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  1. For a fuller account of both these stages in the OED, see Brewer 2007b chapters 5-7.
  2. Not all the new words or senses recorded in the First Supplement were incorporated in the Second, apparently because Burchfield could find no examples of their further use – i.e., evidence that the word or sense in question had become established in the language. As neither work has been digitized, it is impossible to produce a definitive list of the (relatively few) omissions. Some omissions are listed in Ogilvie 2013: 182.