Top sources

These two pages discuss the most quoted sources in OED. We begin on this page with OED1 and a brief account of the sources concerned – Shakespeare, the Bible, Walter Scott, Cursor Mundi, Milton, Chaucer, Caxton, the three journals or newspapers (The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, the Daily News, and London Gazette), Dryden, Dickens, Philemon Holland, and Tennyson.

The following page, Top sources in OED3, reviews the changes now being made to the Dictionary over the course of the OED3 revision.

Top sources in OED1

The first edition of OED (completed 1928) quoted many thousands of examples of the use of language from literary sources – principally Shakespeare, but also numerous other writers in the Victorian literary and cultural canon. When the second edition (OED2, published 1989) was digitized in the late 1980s it became possible to analyse the Dictionary’s quotations systematically. Given that quotations are the backbone of OED, this was a hugely important development. For the first time in its history, it enabled assessment and evaluation of OED’s representation of the chronological development of the language.1

For the significance of quotations in the OED, see the Overview on quotations in the current section of the website.

Chart 22 below, based on pre-2010 searches of OED2 made by EOED and others, gives a reasonably reliable indication of the top sources in OED1.2

Chart 22: Top quotation sources in OED1/2

Brief account

It should go without saying that these individual writers and texts cannot be said, in any straightforward way, to have been the principal influencers on the history of the English language. Instead, they are the sources on which the first-edition OED lexicographers leaned most heavily for excerpting quotations.

In particular, the prominence of Dryden, Dickens, Tennyson and – most egregiously – Walter Scott looks strange to us today, and would seem fairly obviously to reflect the literary predilections of OED1 editors and their readers. Certainly 21st-century linguists would not now select any of these writers as likely to represent the general usage of their day (though see below on Dickens). This line-up of top sources nevertheless shows the value of the first edition of the OED as a witness to the cultural tastes of the educated Victorian and Edwardian public – though the pre-1500 sources in the chart also, necessarily, reflect the principal texts available in printed form during the time quotation collections were being made for OED1 (see further 1150-1499 in OED1/2).

Brief notes on these main sources follow below.

Shakespeare (1564-1616), playwright and poet
Portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio (1623). Source: Wikipedia

In the case of Shakespeare, both cultural and logistical factors would have coincided in producing such a vast tally of quotations (around 33,300 in all). Culturally, then as now, Shakespeare was regarded as without question the most significant writer in the history of English literature, while both editors and readers would have had ready access to his writing: Shakespeare’s plays and poetry were widely read, performed, referred to and published, and there were many concordances of his works in print too. The concordances in particular would have made it very easy indeed to include almost every word he wrote, or was recorded as having written (see Indexes and inconsistencies).

Much interesting recent work has been done on Shakespeare’s vocabulary and we will be putting up a short study of this soon (see our embryo page on Shakespeare under Literary sources).

The Bible (various full and partial versions)
Tyndale’s New Testament, 1526. Source: British Library

As with Shakespeare, the predominance of the Bible in English-speaking culture was taken for granted, and concordances and indexes were widely available over the period in which OED1 was edited. As we know from the description of how the Dictionary was made by C. T. Onions, one of the four main editors of the first edition, ‘Much of the toil of sifting and collecting fresh material consist[ed] in the examination of . . . the concordances to the Bible, Shakespeare, and other poets’ (Onions 1928: 15).

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), novelist and poet
Sir Walter Scott, novelist and poet, painted by Sir William Allen. Source: Wikipedia

The case of Sir Walter Scott is a particularly interesting one. He looks an eccentric choice today as the third most cited source, and second most quoted individual author in the OED after Shakespeare. However, over the 19th century he was an astonishingly popular author whose works were printed in enormous quantities, and he played a key role in literary culture more generally owing to his editing and journalism activities (see St Clair 2004).

Initial EOED study (necessarily, of a small sample of Scott’s 15,000-odd OED quotations) suggests that a good deal of the vocabulary for which he is cited is for revivals of medieval usage in his historical novels that seem unlikely to have represented everyday usage among his contemporaries. In particular, Scott seems to have been a rich source of dialect and regional vocabulary (cailleach, dinmont), revivals from Middle English and Scots, where Scott is the only example cited for two centuries or so (e.g. bruckle, dindle), as well as archaisms (dern), learned or facetious hapax legomena (ambagitory) and nonce-words (debind), together with hosts of ‘ordinary’ usages. Scott’s contribution to OED1 deserves a full study (see Tulloch 1980).

Cursor Mundi (c 1300), anonymous historical and religious poem
From EETS edition of Cursor Mundi. Source: Internet Archive

Cursor Mundi was a major source for OED1 for several reasons. Firstly, it was one of the major early texts to be published by the Early English Text Society (EETS), set up by the second editor of the OED in part to make Old and Middle English evidence accessible to OED editors and readers, and secondly, the reader in question, H. R. Helwich, had most unusually copied out its entire contents. The work itself was very long indeed, over 30,000 lines occupying seven volumes. See the account of this at 1150-1499 in OED1/2 (and of Helwich, at Individual readers).

Milton (1608–1674), poet and polemicist
Milton composing Paradise Lost, 1816. Source: British Museum

Milton, quoted mostly from his poem Paradise Lost, was considered a literary giant and a landmark in the history of the language; as described at Initial practice, the early lexicographers took his death in 1674 as a point of demarcation between the second and third of the three philological periods they detected between the ‘rise’ of the language and their own day (i.e., ‘From the Reformation to Milton’ and ‘From Milton to our own day’; see 1859 Proposal, p. 5). His work had also been concordanced (Cleveland 1867; Bradshaw 1894).

Chaucer (c 1340–1400), poet

Chaucer had long been regarded as the father of the language, whose intensive citation is discussed at 1150-1499 in OED1/2. Most 19th-century and earlier editions of his work contained glossaries.

Caxton (1415×24–1492), printer and translator
Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster. Daniel Maclise RA, 1851. Source: Wikipedia

As the first person to introduce a printing press into England, in 1475 or 1476, Caxton was another landmark in the history of the language, with a wide influence on literary culture more generally (see Blake 1991). He published many of his own translations from classical and French works, and would have been a rich source of evidence for the early use of loan words.

Journals and newspapers: Philosophical Transactions, Daily News, and London Gazette

Many of the Daily News quotations collected for the first edition of OED will have come from the enthusiastic snippings made daily by Furnivall (whose dictionary slips the Murray children enjoyed sorting because they were so racy; Murray 1977: 80). The inclusion of newspapers in OED1 was objected to both by OUP Delegates in 1882 and by early reviewers, but evidently the lexicographers themselves found them an invaluable source for the use of language, especially given OED1’s heavy reliance on texts of a more formal and established linguistic register. The London Gazette quotations in OED1 derive in the main from the late half of the 17th and first half of the 18th century (all types of vocabulary), while many of those from the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions are, unsurprisingly, for scientific words.

Dryden (1631–1700), poet, playwright, and critic
Dryden painted by G. Kneller. Source: Wikipedia

Dryden’s reputation was well established during his own day (he was appointed poet laureate in 1688) and subsequently confirmed by Johnson’s biography in the latter’s Lives of the Poets; Johnson said of Dryden’s transformation of English poetry, ‘he found it brick, and left it marble.’ In the next century his status was further bolstered by Walter Scott, who described Dryden as ‘one of the greatest of our masters’ and re-edited his works for a contemporary audience, though his critical stock seems in some quarters to have declined over the later 1800s. He is represented in OED1 by large quantities of quotations from his translations of great classical authors, notably Virgil. See further Hammond 2004 (in ODNB, subscription required); Lonsdale 2006, vol 2: 79-163; Kinsley and Kinsley 2005.

Dickens (1812-1870), novelist
Dickens in New York, circa 1867–1868. Source: Wikipedia

Dickens was, like Scott, a famous and much read author whose works would have been readily available to OED readers. His novels were set in the present or recent past and might be regarded as more likely to exemplify general usage of the day (including slang) than the poetry of Tennyson (see Hori 2004). This would be true of his posthumously published letters, too, which were also quoted in OED1. Clearly, any such hypothesis would need to be tested with a representative sample of the vocabulary for which both writers are quoted in OED.

Philemon Holland (1552–1637), translator
Title page of 1659 edition of Holland’s Romane Historie. Source: Internet Archive

Holland was another translator, the first to render the whole of Livy in English – a huge folio volume of 1,458 pages published in 1600, titled The Romane Historie written by T. Livius of Padua – followed in 1602 by an equally large translation of Pliny the elder, The Historie of the World, Commonly called, the Naturall Historie. As his ODNB biographer John Considine describes, ‘Two years later Holland turned from Latin to Greek, publishing the first English translation of Plutarch’s Moralia, a very large collection of miscellaneous essays and lectures which was widely read in the early modern period’. All three works were copiously cited in OED1 along with others such as Camden’s Britannia (1610), a topographical and historical survey of Great Britain and Ireland originally published in Latin in 1586. See Considine 2004 (ODNB, subscription required).

Tennyson (1809–1892), poet

As with Scott and Dickens, it seems likely that the wealth of quotation from Tennyson in OED would have been due to his reputation as a major contemporary literary figure, whose poetry – whatever its relationship to the more general language of the day – would have been on the shelves of many of the editors and readers.

From first edition of Tennyson’s The Princess (London: Moxon, 1860), with illustration from drawing by Daniel Maclise RA. Source: Royal Collection Trust

For the changes now being made to OED1/2 in today’s version of OED’s top sources, please see the next page, Top sources in OED3.

Last updated on 24 April 2020


  1. Invaluable initial work in this respect had been done by Schäfer 1980, the inspiration for our EOED project.
  2. OED2 reproduced all OED1’s entries almost entirely without change, merging them with Burchfield’s 20th-century Supplement. Since the top sources in question are all 19th-century or earlier, OED2’s evidence on them largely represents that of OED1, though a proportionally small number of pre-1900 quotations was added to Burchfield’s Supplement and therefore to the OED2 record. See further Which edition contains what, also Sources of OED data. Sources of the quotation totals in Chart 22 are as follows: for Scott, Chaucer, Dryden, Dickens, and Tennyson: EOED (from searches of OED2 on prior to December 2010); for Cursor Mundi, Caxton, Philosophical Transactions, Daily News, Holland, and London Gazette: Willinsky (1994); for Shakespeare and the Bible: OED website, ‘Some facts about the Second Edition’, at [accessed 23 August 2019]; for Milton, David-Antoine Williams (private information; see 1500-1699 in OED1/2 fn. 4)

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