Initial aims


In June 1857 the London Philological Society appointed three of its members, Herbert Coleridge, F. J. Furnivall and Richard Chenevix Trench, ‘as a committee to collect unregistered words in English’. As a result, Trench delivered to the Society in November 1857 two lectures ‘On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries’, subsequently published as a single document (Trench 1857). These activities initiated a series of discussions between members of the Society, who eventually decided to produce a new English dictionary, superior to all its predecessors. The various characteristics of this dictionary, together with the plans to bring it into existence, were announced and described in 1859 in the Proposal for a Publication of a New English Dictionary by the Philological Society (reproduced at 1859 Proposal). The ‘New English Dictionary’ was thus the title by which the original OED was first known (see Glossary entry).

First steps

In his seminal two lectures of November 1857, Trench had said, ‘If…we count it worth while to have all words, we can only have them by reading all books; this is the price we must be content to pay’ (Trench 1857: 69). Work on the Dictionary began accordingly with the assumption that all words from all printed (or written) sources were to be included. The Philological Society’s Proposal stated, unequivocally:

The first requirement of every lexicon is, that it should contain every word in the literature of the language it professes to illustrate [original italics]. We entirely repudiate the theory, which converts the lexicographer into an arbiter of style, and leaves it in his discretion to accept or reject words according to his private notion of their elegance or inelegance.

[Philological Society] 1859: 2

But this was an unattainable ideal. It would have been impossible to read all available sources, and it was therefore impossible to be sure of including all words. Moreover, many of the words which were known to the lexicographers turned out to be unsuitable for inclusion: some because they were too specialized or too eccentric, some because they were obscene, some because they were insufficiently attested, some because there was no room. The gradual erosion of the ideal of inclusiveness – and the consequent shift from descriptiveness to, in effect, prescriptiveness, since every decision to exclude a word is a departure from the purist ideal of descriptive lexicography so confidently stated by Trench and the others – is a fascinating feature of the early stages of the Dictionary.

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Last updated on 6 August 2019