Outline of the language

This introductory page reviews firstly the outline representation of the history and development of the vocabulary of English in OED (OED1 1150-1899 and 1500-1899), as derived from electronic searching of quotation numbers, and secondly the changes to this outline now being made by the ongoing revision of OED3, gradually appearing at OED Online (http://www.oed.com).

Further pages in this section review OED’s record of First quotations, the Top sources quoted in the Dictionary, and, at Fe/male sources, the comparative representation of female and male authored sources. More detailed discussion of the treatment of individual periods in the language can be found at Period coverage.

OED1 1150-1899

The first edition of OED set out to record the history and development of the vocabulary of English from 1150 onwards1. Quotations are the bedrock of the OED enterprise, so one of the fundamental pieces of information to examine, in any project seeking to understand the nature and achievement of this dictionary, is the total number and chronological distribution of the quotations over the period the dictionary covered.

We know that the first edition contains around two million quotations altogether, but more detailed and systematic information about its quotations is not possible to collect, given that no digitised version of this dictionary has ever been made accessible for public consultation.

Instead, when making electronic searches of OED1 quotations, we have to use OED2 as a proxy source. OED2 – i.e. the second edition of OED, available in electronic form up till 2010 – is a reasonably satisfactory resource for this purpose: OED2 was not a revision of OED1 but instead a typographical merging of OED1 with Burchfield’s 1972-86 20c Supplement (see Which edition contains what).

In 2010 the electronic version of OED2 was removed from the OED Online website and has never been replaced. Much of the systematic data on OED1/2 on the EOED website, therefore, derives from electronic searches of OED2 made by the EOED project before 2010.

The chart below is derived from electronic searches of OED2 in May 2006. It shows the variable numbers of quotations in OED used to illustrate words and senses dated between 1150 and 1899 and is the best available source for OED1’s chronological distribution of quotations up to 1850 – though for the years 1850-1899 its data will have been to some slight extent influenced by the small numbers of 19th-century quotations included in Burchfield’s Supplement of 1972-86, whose brief was to update the existing OED with 20th-century quotations.

Note: The line display in Chart 1 departs from the normal EOED convention of columns for decade totals of OED quotations, since our chart provider (Highcharts) does not permit the representation of totals under 50 for column charts with a wide range of values. For the pre-1300 period therefore, for which there are sometimes fewer than 50 quotations per decade, we use a line display. For more information see our pages on Charts and tables and Sources of OED data.

Chart 1: Total quotations in OED1/2 1150-1899

At first sight, we might assume that the chart’s chronological distribution of quotations reflects the history and development of vocabulary in English. Specifically, given the intentions of the OED1 lexicographers to identify the first use of every word in the language and then track the history of their usage, including their proliferation of different senses, the chart might appear to show, in outline, the rate at which new words and senses were formed and subsequently used in the English language from 1150 to the 1980s.

But can this really be true? Certainly many users of OED1 have taken the quotation evidence it records at face value, especially at the level of individual entries. When the data is presented in this generalized visual form, however, so that the variations in coverage are apparent, it becomes more difficult to accept that the number of OED quotations at any one point in time will, necessarily, bear unproblematic witness to the corresponding point in the history of English vocabulary.

Such scepticism will be enhanced by the reflection that the OED1 lexicographers could never have realized their intentions to record the use over time of each and every word in full, given the technological and organizational constraints under which they firstly gathered then edited their quotation evidence to produce a publishable dictionary.

That means that the chart above, properly understood, shows something less straightforward than at first appears – not the history and development of vocabulary in English per se but instead the lexicographers’ construction of that history and development, using the quotation materials they were in a position to amass and successfully edit.

OED1’s record of the history of vocabulary in English will thus reflect both the variations in availability of the original quotation evidence, and also, in ways more or less difficult to reconstruct, the biases, assumptions, and limitations influencing the lexicographers’ choices of which sources to read, how to interpret the evidence they found, and how to publish the result.

For further discussion, go to pages under Period coverage and OED1 quotation collection.

OED1 1500-1899

Some of the cultural assumptions influencing OED1’s choice of quotations can be seen by looking more closely at the post-1500 chronological distribution of quotations in the Dictionary, as in the chart below.

Chart 2: Total quotations in OED1/2 1500-1899

Several of the more striking peaks in this chart can be easily explained by the intensive citation of specific individual sources. Thus the increase between 1520-1529 and 1530-1539 is substantially contributed to by 5,409 quotations from a single text, Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse. This was a bilingual French-English dictionary published by John Palsgrave in 1530, and accounts for well over half the total number of OED quotations recorded for that year (7,218).2

The next steep rise, between 1580 and 1600, is in large measure due to the OED lexicographers’ devoted documentation of Shakespeare’s vocabulary over this period (around 33,300 quotations), while that between 1630 and 1660 is probably attributable to extensive excerpting both of Milton’s works and of pamphlets printed during this period of civil unrest. See further discussion at 1500-1699 in OED1/2 and 1500-1699 in OED3.3

The significant dip in quotations for the early years of the 18th century is again attributable to non-linguistic factors – in this case, the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the volunteer readers for this period of the language. This is described in more detail in our page on 1700-1799 in OED1/2 under Period coverage.

The OED3 revision

In 2000 Oxford University Press began online publication of the first ever revision of OED, a long-term project which by December 2015 (the last official update on progress) had revised ‘over a third of the dictionary’.4 Further information on the revision can be found in EOED pages on OED3.

Clearly, the changes now being made to OED1’s record by the OED revisers are a matter of great importance and interest, given OED’s position as ‘The definitive record of the English language’, the descriptive label that appears on every page of the OED Online website. Unfortunately, it is impossible to identify and assess these changes in any systematic way – i.e. using digital means – since OED Online does not permit users to search the revised portion of the Dictionary separately from the unrevised. Examination of individual revised entries one by one, however, indicates that large-scale alterations are taking place. Many new quotations have been added to entries, many existing quotations have been re-dated, and in consequence an indeterminate (but probably substantial) number of entries have been both ante- and post-dated. The content and character of an equally indeterminate number of entries have also changed, as new head words have been created out of material originally assigned to sub-entry status, and as semantic differentiations and categories have been re-analyzed and re-assigned.

OED’s Online restricted searching facilities make it impossible to produce a chart comparable to the OED2-derived chart above. This means that we cannot see with any certainty how the revision is changing the snapshot picture of the language represented in the chart above. The chart below is however the next best guess. It shows the relationship between the OED2 collection of quotations and the data currently displayed on the OED Online website, namely the chronological distribution of quotations in OED’s revised along with unrevised entries (data gathered December 2018).

Chart 3: Total quotations in OED1/2 & OED Online (Dec 2018) 1150-2020

The remarkable thing about this chart is its demonstration that the OED3 revision is so closely following the quotation distribution of OED1/2, despite its major programme of independent quotation collection, enabled by electronic searching of a vastly enhanced range of historical textual sources. For detailed discussion see pages under Period coverage.

The charts on this page show the distribution of the total number of quotations in the Dictionary. Of equal interest is the OED’s evidence on the date of entry of new words and senses into the language, something which can be examined by looking at its record of First quotations (please note this page is currently under development, with some initial charts uploaded but no commentary as yet provided). OED’s identification of first quotations in any period always closely tracks its collection of quotations overall: the more quotations available, the more likely the lexicographers have been to discover first examples of use.

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  1. See Murray’s ‘General Explanations’, p. viii of 1933 edition of OED1
  2. For more on Palsgrave see Stein 1997. The OED’s occasional heavy dependence on individual dictionaries and glossaries – some rather than others – is an interesting phenomenon; see further Schäfer 1989.
  3. Shakespeare’s vocabulary, and what OED tells us about it, is a rich and complex subject. Our page on Shakespeare is in preparation.
  4. OED Online’s page Dictionary milestones, accessed December 2018.