The quotations in OED are the basis of its claim to scholarly and historical authority. The 19th-century founders of the dictionary set out to record every word in the English language by reading through all printed sources available to them (which were also, in various ways, appropriate for citation). Readers excerpted around five million quotations, from analysis of which the lexicographers constructed their definitions and traced semantic developments in the language. Two million quotations were published in the first edition (and a further 527,000 in the 20th-century Supplement) to illustrate and provide evidence for this analysis. All this material is being overhauled and added to during the course of the first ever revision of the OED, which began in 2000 and is approaching the half-way mark at the time of writing (2019).

The quotations therefore play a crucial role in the OED: de facto they identify the authorized users of the language and the connotations and nuances of the way words are used in practice.

But how have the sources been chosen – both for today’s revision, and for the earlier versions of the Dictionary? And what sorts of quotations have been used?

The material in this portion of the site explores some of the main issues relating to quotation selection in the OED.

Last updated on 5 August 2019