1500-1699 in OED3

As described on the previous page, the Early Modern English period received special attention in the first edition of OED. However, the unevenness of its use of quotation sources – notably the intensive quotation from Shakespeare and selected other texts – makes it an unreliable guide to the lexical productivity of individual authors, genres, or year spans.

The question for us now, as work on OED3 slowly advances through entries first published in its parent dictionary between 1884 and 1928, is how much and in what ways the first-ever revision of OED is making changes to today’s version of this ‘authoritative record of the language’.

This page begins with general observations on OED3’s revision of 1500-1699, followed by our chart comparing OED Online’s chronological representation of the period with OED’s previous version. Discussion then follows of the possible reasons for the lack of proportional change so far (notwithstanding OED3’s considerable haul of new quotations), along with the few examples to date of published research on OED3’s work on EME. The final two sections suggest some avenues for future research and provide information on the representation of 16th and 17th-century sources in OED Online’s list of ‘Top 1,000 sources’ (as of June 2019).

OED3’s revision of EME documentation: general observations

Enormous quantities of lexical and textual research have taken place since 1884-1928, including that on EME lexis (see the previous page’s accounts of the aborted EME dictionary and post-OED1 lexical studies). For the last 15 years or so, the OED3 lexicographers have also been able to make use of the wealth of digitized texts available on Early English Books Online, along with many other digitized sources of both EME and medieval texts (judicial and legislative records, word books – notably LEME, online editions of MSS and individual works and authors, etc).1. OED3 has also found rich material in its own quotation corpus – i.e. quotations previously used to illustrate the usage of one word or sense which also provide antedating evidence, hitherto unused, for another word or sense (In 2002, one of the Deputy Editors of OED described this last resource as the most fruitful for antedating documentation of the EME period; see Durkin 2002: 67).

It is thus surprising to see that, as of December 2018, OED3 seems to have made comparatively little change to the OED1 pattern of quotation representation for this period. It is as always hard to distinguish this clearly, given that electronic searching on OED Online does not differentiate between unrevised and revised entries. As with our other comparative charts of the OED3 revision, therefore, the one below shows the only data available, that is the chronological distribution of quotations in OED’s revised along with unrevised entries (data gathered December 2018), compared with the equivalent distribution for OED1/2.

Chart 8: Total quotations in OED1/2 & OED Online (Dec 2018) 1500-1699

The first thing to note is that OED3 have added an impressive number of new quotations to the lexicographical record for 1500-1799: the figure as of December 2018 is 154,423. It goes without saying that this represents an enormous amount of scholarly labour.2 But as the chart shows, OED3 follows OED2’s distribution of chronological quotation coverage fairly closely. Two obvious disparities occur between 1610 and 1619 and between 1650 and 1659, where there is a notable peak in OED3 quotation totals.

The first of these increases may be in part explained by OED Online’s new dating policy for Shakespeare, who is the most quoted author in the OED altogether. In round figures, over 17,000 of Shakespeare’s 33,300-odd quotations are now electronically dated 1615 (i.e. they appear thus dated when the website is electronically searched). This is because OED Online has recently departed from modern bibliographical convention in assigning this date to all posthumously published works by Shakespeare – though in fact, Shakespeare died in 1616, while the first textual evidence for many of these quotations is the 1623 First Folio.3

The second obvious disparity in the two lines of the chart above, the increase between 1650 and 1699 which has further accentuated the existing third peak in OED1’s quotation evidence, is perhaps explained by OED3’s access to historical databases of political and other publications during the Civil War. This may have produced a flood of new lexical evidence. As with OED1’s documentation for these years, however, more research is needed to clarify this hypothesis. Milton remains a dominant figure for the period: see Chart 9 below.

Why has there been so little apparent change?

Probably the main reason for this is that the large blocks of quotations from individual sources in OED1 have been retained in OED3. OED3 quotation collection has tended to be spread more evenly over a wider range of sources (according to personal information), and OED3 quotation collection has not so far had the chance to shift the main proportions in any significant way. It may also be the case that the characteristics of the OED1/2 line reflect genuine peaks and troughs in lexical productivity, though one would want to see convincing argument and demonstration of this from the OED lexicographers.

The possibility of unconscious bias should also be considered. As each entry is revised, the individual lexicographers take the original entry as a basis and develop it by exploring the new historical resources now available, along with existing OED quotations and with the revision material already on file, much of the latter gathered and received over decades past. The lack of proportional change between the OED1/2 and OED3 quotation lines may therefore be due to the influence exerted on today’s lexicographers by the shape and size of the individual entries in OED1 that they successively revise.

Research on OED3’s work on EME

There has been little research published on OED3’s changes to the EME record so far. Particularly valuable, evidently, are the observations, descriptions and analyses of their work by the OED lexicographers themselves. Given the difficulties presented by the current form of the OED Online website, insiders are in a much better position to produce useful accounts than external researchers.

In 1999, OED3 lexicographer Philip Durkin acknowledged that it would be impossible even for the new revision to tackle Early Modern English with the thoroughness it deserved. ‘The exhaustive documentation of the English of this period,’ he wrote, ‘will have to remain as an objective for future editions of OED or for a revived project along the lines of [by then aborted] EMED’ (Durkin 1999: 33n). OED3 would nevertheless do its best to report the scholarship on EME lexis that had taken place since the original OED was published. Referring to Schäfer’s ‘eloquent case for the desirability’ of such documentation’ (Schäfer 1987), Durkin stated that ‘OED3 will endeavour to make as full use of [Bailey’s Michigan EMED] materials as possible in supplementing documentation for existing entries and in identifying the most significant new items for addition, with particular attention being given to those items which cast significant new light on existing items in OED.’

In 2002 Durkin published a second article on 16th-century documentation in the OED, analysing a small sample of OED3’s revised alphabet range (M-mamzer) ‘to illustrate how revision work on all areas of the text…is transforming the [OED’s] record of the vocabulary of English’ (Durkin 2002: 66). Noting (p. 67) that non-literary texts had been especially fruitful sources for revising OED1’s record – not surprising given the early lexicographers’ special attention, for a variety of reasons, to literary sources (see our page on Literature and the nation under OED1 intellectual climate) – he began and ended his article by referring to OED’s role in charting the development of the English language, and the reliance by scholars on the OED for this purpose. His warnings on the unreliability of OED1/2 evidence for this period are quoted on the previous page. He explains that even at this relatively early stage in OED3’s work, the revision was producing significant shifts in the accumulation and dating of quotation evidence.

But while ‘approximately a third of OED2 words and senses are being antedated during the course of work on OED3’, many other words and senses, previously identified as first used in the 17th century (or later), were being shifted back to the 16th century. At that stage as now, the combined result was not producing much difference between the two chronological lines (for evidence for chronological changes to OED’s quotation record at this earlier stage, much easier to research before 2010 as OED2 was then accessible for public searching on the OED Online website, see relevant pages on our Archived site). Also then as now, OED3 was adding many new quotations for this period to the Dictionary (Durkin 2002: 67-8).

One interesting recent development in resources for lexical research for this period is exemplified by ‘Shakespeare’s World’. As the project website describes, this is a ‘collaborative full text transcription project’ which calls on volunteers to ‘transcribe manuscripts created by thousands of men and women in and around Shakespeare’s lifetime, 1564–1616’. The website’s blog reports a number of valuable OED antedatings in articles written by Philip Durkin, now Deputy Chief Editor of OED. An example can be found at OED3 quotation collection.4

Topics for further research

Obvious topics for future research include

  • investigation of the quotation of female-authored sources for this period – one would expect the OED revisers to be making extensive use of the wealth of such sources now available for this period which were unedited and/or disregarded when OED1 was compiled
  • the character and extent of new uses of non-literary as well as literary sources (judicial sources? journals and letters? household accounts? wills? etc) along with consequent changes in the lexical record
  • whether and to what extent OED1’s extensive quotation from Shakespeare is now being counterbalanced with evidence from other contemporary dramatists and/or poets – and whether and how the OED record is changing of other writers in the period who were intensively cited in OED1 (e.g. Spenser and Milton); see chart 22 below
  • examination of the changes between OED2 and OED3 in the record of first quotations – i.e the types of texts and authors in which above-average proportions of new words and senses are now being recorded. (For the tricky characteristics of such research, see the charts in First quotations and the discussion in our pages on Seward at Anna Seward/first quotations).

OED Online’s ‘Top 1,000 sources’ – June 2019: 16th and 17th-century

As of 16 June 2019, OED Online’s list of top 1,000 authors and works includes the following 16th- and 17th-century sources with around 5,500 or more quotations. This information needs to be treated with care, since it represents an undifferentiable mixture of revised and unrevised entries and changes every quarter as revised entries are uploaded and the corresponding unrevised entries deleted. Nevertheless, it usefully illustrates Shakespeare’s extraordinary dominance of OED documentation and the strong literary bias in OED’s representation of the language.

Chart 9: From OED Online ‘Top 1,000 sources’ for 1500-1699 (June 2019)

Each source’s current ranking is indicated by the number in brackets after the name. The next source from this period to appear on the list is Coverdale’s Bible of 1535, with 4,327 quotations. Note also the presence of two dictionaries: Palsgrave’s Lesclaircissement of 1530, discussed as one of the three peaks in OED1’s quotations for this period on the previous page, and Cotgrave’s A dictionarie of the French and English tongues (1611).

Last updated on 2 September 2020


  1. As foreseen by Schafer 1987: 72.
  2. OED2 had 626,563 quotations for this period as compared with OED3’s new total of 780,986.
  3. The precise figures on OED Online as of April 2019 are that 17,282 Shakespeare quotations are dated 1615, out of a total of 32,943 from Shakespeare altogether. As can be seen by consulting any individual OED Online entry for a word or sense in a work by Shakespeare first published in the First Folio, the text on the screen specifies two dates for the quotation in question, neither of which is 1615: ‘a1616’ and ‘1623’. The recent changes in citing Shakespeare are briefly but not fully explained in the blog-post by Kirsty Gibson (2016), ‘Shakespeare in the OED’, on the OED Online website at https://public.oed.com/blog/shakespeare/ [accessed 19 April 2019]. All other works quoted on OED Online are more conventionally assigned the date of the first ascertainable textual occurrence. By contrast, OED1’s dating of Shakespeare’s works (reproduced in OED2) was far more variable and internally inconsistent, not surprisingly so given the conditions under which the first edition of the Dictionary was assembled and edited.
  4. ‘Shakespeare’s World’ is the result of a partnership between the Folger Library in Washington D.C., the crowd-sourcing company zooniverse.org, and the OED. The results will be incorporated in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s new Early Modern Manuscripts Online database, at https://emmo.folger.edu/. The blogpost is at https://blog.shakespearesworld.org/ [accessed 18 October 2019].