Early progress

As he wrote in a letter in 1860, Herbert Coleridge, the first editor of the Society’s proposed Dictionary, ‘confidently expect[ed], unless any unforeseen accident should occur to paralyze our efforts, that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number [i.e. instalment] to the world’ (Coleridge 1860: 77; reproduced on the archived pages on the OED Online website).

Unfortunately he died one year later from tuberculosis, aged only 31 (Considine 2014d).  The editorship of the new dictionary passed to F. J. Furnivall, whose enormous energy and wide-ranging enthusiasms were diffused in too many directions for the work to come to fruition. He set up a network of sub-editors and readers but kept little control of them, and the original volunteers fell away or grew demotivated. In May 1868 the Athenaeum reported ‘the general belief is, that the project will not be carried out’ – apparently in response to accounts of Furnivall’s cheerful disorder together with his inconsistent direction of sub-editors and readers and his failure to evaluate, analyse or even store properly the work they produced, while in 1869 the Pall Mall Gazette recorded its fear that ‘there is nothing but an account of unfulfilled promise to be recorded’ (see full account in Gilliver 2016: chapter 2).

Furnivall’s heritage

All this had consequences for the nature of the quotation material gathered together for the Dictionary. When Murray was finally appointed editor some years later, in 1879 (his appointment being part of the arrangements whereby Oxford University Press took over the project from the Philological Society in 1878), he was appalled at the condition of many of the slips and at the unsystematic way in which records had been kept of the various sub-editors responsible for individual letters and sections of letters (see further FJF’s notebook). As his granddaughter recounts:

Until the material was handed over, Furnivall gave no hint of its condition. The load [weighing ‘some ton and three-quarters’ (Murray 1879b: 568)] delivered to Murray at Mill Hill in the spring of 1879 and which stood on the floor of the Scriptorium waiting to be unpacked, was a shock to the newly appointed Editor. Many of the sub-editors had clearly found difficulty in packing up hundred weights of slips. Some were sent in sacks in which they had long been stored, and when opened a dead rat was found in one and a live mouse and her family in another: one sub-editor’s work was delivered in a baby’s bassinet: there was a ‘hamper of I‘s’ with the bottom broken, which had been left behind in an empty vicarage in Harrow. Many of the bundles had stood for so many years in unsuitable places that the slips were crumbling with damp and the writing had faded; others had been so illegibly scribbled in the first place that Dr Murray exclaimed in exasperation that Chinese would have been more useful, since for that he could have found a translator….
The first task was to check if the whole alphabet was there, many letters having been split amongst several sub-editors and widely scattered….He soon found that fewer than half a dozen of the original sub-editors had brought their work to a conclusion with their quotations and letters in order. ()

K. M. E. Murray 1977: 174-5

The OUP Delegates were already aware of some of the shortcomings of the material so far collected for the Dictionary. In 1878, Professor Max Müller (himself a Delegate) reported to them on the Lists of Readers and Books Read for the Proposed English Dictionary, a privately printed document now preserved in the OED archives and reproduced in our section on OED1’s compilation. ‘It is by no means easy to form an opinion of the exact nature of the materials which have been collected by the Philological Society with a view of producing a Dictionary of the English Language,’ Müller wrote, though he added, ‘That such as they are, they form a very important nucleus cannot be doubted’.

Müller had ‘no misgivings as to the merely commercial aspect of the undertaking’. However, as he observed, ‘that is not the only point, or even the chief point, which has to be considered by the Delegates of the Press’. He went on to identify two significant problems. The first was the choice of books from which to take quotations. Too many had been consulted, he felt, yet ‘I was surprised to find on a cursory inspection a number of classical works not yet finished, or, in many cases, entirely omitted’. He enclosed ‘a list of the more important works not yet finished, or altogether omitted’, but so far we have not identified this in the OED archives; we thank the archivist Beverley Hunt for her efforts in this respect.

The second problem was the choice of which words to select quotations for. On this matter, Müller said, ‘I have at present no opportunities of forming an opinion.’ But he went on to warn against the danger ‘that in making an index, exceptional words, or words used in an exceptional sense are frequently noted down, while common words, used in their common senses, are often passed over. Yet the latter form the great body of the language, and those who consult a Dictionary ought to be able to find out, for instance, whether so common a word as commonwealth, or even a mere pronoun such as its, was used by writers of a certain age or not’. (This phenomenon, the preference of readers for recording unusual rather than usual words, was one which came to dog Murray; see further Issues and problems in our section on Reading and readers).

The significance of this legacy from Furnivall is that Murray always felt himself obliged to remedy the failings of the original collectors by making new searches for quotations (see e.g. Knowles 2000: 31), while simultaneously processing existing material to meet the publication deadlines of OUP. This put enormous pressure on him and his staff.

Deficiencies in quotation material?

What were the deficiencies in quotation material, and to what extent was Murray able to make them good? There is no hard evidence for this: we cannot now, in any consistent way, distinguish between quotations gathered previously to Murray’s time and those gathered under him (except where they are from sources dated 1879-1915 – an insignificant fraction).

Murray himself believed that the quotation material he inherited was largely useless, and claimed that only a small minority of the original slips was eventually printed in the Dictionary. In 1899, after two decades of editing the Dictionary, he wrote to one of his most devoted volunteer contributors, Fitzedward Hall:

There are numberless puzzles about the early history of the Philological Society’s materials which I have long despaired of unravelling, contenting myself with doing the best possible with the materials since they came into my custody. With the exceptions of yours and a few others, the original materials are bad enough, and rarely to be trusted, and, in point of fact, 5/6 of the quotations that we print, are taken from those collected under my supervision since 1879, and for which I can in some measure vouch. When to these we add all those you give us in the proof stage, it will be apparent that a very small proportion of the Dictionary is composed of ‘material collected by the Phi. Soc’.

11 April 1899: OED/B/3/9/4 (OED archives)

Scribbling sideways on both vertical margins of the verso side of the letter, he added, ‘Taking up at random one of our last bundles of “copy”, & counting the just 100 slips sent to press’, 82 of them had been collected under his editorship and only 18 survived from Philological Society days: ‘Often 10 in the 100 slips comes nearer to it. I often wish that I had made a bonfire of the old and begun anew…what an incubus of rubbish and error should we have thrown off!’ As pointed out in K. M. E. Murray 1977: 169, ‘the statement on the title page of the Dictionary, on which Furnivall had insisted [in his negotiations with OUP in 1877], that it was “founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological Society” was grossly misleading’.1

Murray’s attempts to remedy deficiencies

We can see from the successive editions of the Appeal for readers that Murray published in 1879-80, immediately after assuming editorship, that he identified some areas of source provenance (e.g. the 18th century) as being particularly in need of attention. This Appeal was extraordinarily successful in achieving its aim: 2,000 copies were published in three editions in less than a year, and brought in ‘some eight hundred readers in Great Britain and four or five hundred in the United States…between them they added a million slips to those already in the Scriptorium’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 177-8; see further Brewer 2000).

These new quotations evidently increased the Dictionary’s coverage of material to a significant degree. It was still necessary, however, for Murray and his staff to extend their investigations further. In 1884 Murray described how, ‘for every word we have to make a general search to discover whether any earlier or later quotations, or quotations in other senses, exist,’ at the same time acknowledging that ‘we cannot exhaust the ground, or attain to absolute certainty, except in very exceptional circumstances’ (Murray 1884b: 515-16).

It is notable that Murray built up an enormous bank of quotations relatively early in the production of the Dictionary. It is always claimed (e.g. by Craigie and Onions in their Preface to the Supplement, 1933) that the Dictionary was based on a collection of five million quotations. Half that amount had been collected by the time Murray took over as editor in 1879, if we believe the information preserved in the draft of a letter written by Murray to a Mrs Henry Potts in December 1880: ‘the quotations I have for the New Dictionary number about 2,500,000, and…they are still after two years’ labour only partially brought into alphabetical order, & scarcely at all into chronological order under each word’.2 This implies that the specified two and a half million quotations were there to be worked on by December 1878 – although as we have just seen Murray claimed they were ‘useless’. (This apparent inconsistency may lead us to think he was exaggerating.) Two and a half million quotations are again mentioned in 1880 in an article on Murray and his (Mill Hill) scriptorium by ‘Curiosus’ (evidently a pseudonym). This describes Murray’s ‘iron room thirty-two feet by sixteen, which serves as workroom and storeroom for the 2,500,000 slips already accumulated’ and observes that ‘The labour involved in the alphabetical sorting of the material collected has been so great that, although two assistants have been engaged on it almost uninterruptedly since May, 1879, the work is only complete to letter T’.3

On 18 May 1883 the Philological Society recorded that three million quotations had been sent in,4 and by 1901 (i.e. 27 years before the final instalment of the Dictionary was published) Murray had amassed the whole five million. Newspaper reports of a talk he gave to the Authors’ Club, in Whitehall Court, on 15 April that year record his claim that:

Up to the present time they had collected about 5,000,000 quotations, and he had calculated that if the slips upon which they were written were laid side by side they would extend from Brighton to Inverness; that the lines of writing, if pieced together in one continuous line, would extend from London to Peking, and that the mere reading of the quotations at the rate of a minute each, and reading eight hours a day and six days a week, would occupy 32 years. The whole of the quotations, each upon separate slips of paper, had been collected by readers who responded to calls made by the Philological Society.

Oxford Chronicle, 19 April 1901, from one of several clippings giving an account of this address preserved in scrap-book in Murray Papers, Box 32

This does not mean that the lexicographers stopped collecting after 1901, of course, but it does explain the sharp fall in printed quotations in the Dictionary which begins in the 1890s and continues to the 1920s. See further our page on Period coverage on 1800-1929 in OED1/2 and commentary on Chart 16.

Go to next pages on Supplement quotation collection.

Last updated on 28 April 2020


  1. For more on Murray and Fitzedward Hall see Knowles 2000.
  2. Thanks to Lynda Mugglestone for this reference, found in the Murray Papers.
  3. Notes & Queries (1880): 262. Thanks to Peter Gilliver for this reference.
  4. ‘Anniversary Meeting’ of Friday 18 May 1883, in Transactions of the Philological Society (1882-4), p. xvii.