1500-1699 in OED1/OED2

This page begins with observations on OED1’s documentation of the Early Modern period, drawing on evidence from the lexicographers’ own comments and on charts of the total collection of quotations for this period and later, and noting the three peaks in EME quotation collection. It then turns to subsequent lexical scholarship on the period, including the aborted plan to create a specialised dictionary of Early Modern English. The final section, Imbalances in OED’s evidence on Early Modern English, draws attention to the dangers of relying on OED for lexical information about this period, given the inevitable difficulties of accessing and editing the relevant evidence over the period the Dictionary was compiled. Here we should remember that over half of OED Online’s entries are as yet (2019) unrevised, and in many instances therefore over a hundred years out of date.1

OED3’s new treatment of this period, gradually emerging as the revision progresses, is discussed on the next page, 1500-1699 in OED3.

OED1 1500-1699

It has long been a truism that this period of the language was especially productive in word formation and in literary and linguistic experimentation. Commentators have often pointed to Shakespeare as the supreme exponent of such experimentation, a judgement confirmed by OED’s own evidence. Shakespeare was by far and away the most quoted individual source in the OED, with c 33,300 quotations in all, and a huge tally (over 2,000) of first quotations – i.e., of first cited use. But to what extent was Shakespeare’s perceived prominence the consequence of the disproportionate attention given to his works – and perhaps the period more generally – by the OED1 lexicographers and their volunteer readers? This is a difficult question to answer. This page and the next set out some of the issues to consider. On balance it seems that the answer is yes, OED1 did indeed pay disproportionate attention paid to Shakespeare’s vocabulary. However, it is also demonstrably the case that Shakespeare’s use of language was both distinctive and influential.

From early on in the construction of OED1 (1860s onwards) this period proved a popular one with readers. By the time Murray had been appointed editor in 1878 and published his first Appeal to the public (1879), he was able to record that ‘the later sixteenth-century literature’ had already been ‘fairly done’. (By contrast, ‘the seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory’). But despite the wealth of quotations printed in the OED for these years, the first-edition lexicographers themselves believed that their treatment of the period was insufficient. In 1919, W. A. Craigie (by then third chief editor of Dictionary) wrote,

This [1500-1675] is one of the most marvellous periods of the language, and…in the pages of the Society’s dictionary [i.e. OED]…it bulks very largely indeed, yet by no means more than it deserves. Its riches are almost inexhaustible, and we are almost daily compelled to set aside large quantities of interesting material for which we can find no space in our columns. Moreover, abundant as our material is, it constantly fails to clear up some obscure phrase or allusion, and many well-known passages in the writers of that time still await a satisfactory solution. The English of these two centuries can only be dealt with in an adequate manner when it has been made the subject of special study and has its own dictionary.

Craigie 1919: 8

As Craigie indicates, OED1’s coverage of this period was indeed extremely generous, especially in comparison with the 18th century – though the Dictionary contains many more quotations for some Early Modern decades than for others. Both these features can be seen in the charts below. 

Chart 6: Total quotations in OED1/2 1500-1699

Chart 7a: Total quotations in OED1/2 1500-1899 by century (columns)

Unsurprisingly, the chronologically varying accumulations of quotations tally closely with the numbers of first uses of a word – first quotations, in EOED parlance – that the OED1 lexicographers also recorded for any individual set of years. This can be seen in the charts in our section on First quotations in OED.

OED1’s three Early Modern peaks

Extract from Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement (1530). Source: Hanks 2019

Three peaks stand out for the Early Modern period: 1530-1539, 1590-1619, and 1640-1649. The bulk of the first peak is formed by 5,400-odd quotations from Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse, the bilingual dictionary published by John Palsgrave in 1530. This remarkable work was both the first French grammar and the first English–French dictionary; it contains a wealth of information on both languages and shows interest in regional and social variation as well as literary use. It thus stands out as the first work to treat vernacular languages with the scholarly meticulousness hitherto reserved for Latin and Greek; see further Stein 1997 and Stein 2004 (ODNB, subscription required). However, the vast number of OED quotations for this work clearly distorts the Dictionary’s chronological lexical record, and the chosen quotations themselves – yet to be studied – vary considerably in their usefulness for illustrating meaning.

Palsgrave’s dictionary contains some 18,890 English-French items altogether, arranged alphabetically by part of speech. Nouns were usually listed as single-word equivalents (as quoted under the OED1 entry for enamelling, for which Palsgrave’s ‘Ammellyng, esmaillevre’ was the first quotation), while the verbs, more helpfully for OED purposes, were embedded in an English phrase displaying its contextual use, as in the definition quoted in the OED entry for the verb consummate (‘I consommate, I make a full ende of a thyng, je consumme’; compare the image reproduced to the right). In general, the OED lexicographers try to avoid quoting from dictionaries, as their entries may not reflect current usage: dictionary writers, particularly of earlier periods, frequently plagiarise each others’ works and contain words and entries long out of date and/or under-substantiated (see EOED page on Dictionaries).

The second peak, 1590 to 1619, is dominated by the intensive recording of Shakespeare (c. 33,300 quotations), for whose work the lexicographers were able to use concordances and other editorial aids such as glossaries.2 The Shakespeare texts most quoted in the OED were Hamlet and the history plays – Henry V, Henry IV Part I and Part II, and Richard III. Arguably this tells one more about Victorian/Edwardian literary tastes than about the linguistic qualities of the works per se.

Soon after OED1 was completed in 1928, scholars raised the question whether the Dictionary’s apparently biassed excerpting from Shakespeare over-represented his lexical productivity (and perhaps that of this period in English more generally): see Mackie 1936 and Subsequent lexical scholarship below. More recently, Richard Bailey has observed, ‘The growth spurt in the English vocabulary centred on 1600 is almost certainly an artefact of the method used by the OED rather than a historical fact’ (Bailey 1985: 210 n. 6). For more on Shakespeare and the OED see Brewer 2012. (Work is currently underway on a new section on Shakespeare in Individual authors).

The third peak, 1640-69, coincides with the period before, during and after the English Civil War and may reflect the increase in pamphlet literature of the period.3 Further research is needed to substantiate this hypothesis, clearly highly plausible. Notably, however, these years also coincide with intensive quotation from Milton – c. 9,030 quotations altogether, principally from Paradise Lost (1667), which alone was quoted c. 5,180 times in OED1. Across the full range of his published work Milton was quoted c. 12,490 times in all in OED1, over dates spanning c. 1623-1658.4

The huge number of quotations from Milton reflects his iconic importance for the Victorian lexicographers and their volunteer readers: Milton’s death was taken as one of the demarcation points in the history of English literature and language (see Initial practice). The question for us now is whether OED evidence is right to suggest that Milton’s writings played such an instrumental or exemplary role in the history of the use and development of vocabulary in English, as opposed to canonical literature in English. See further The canon.

Title page of Quarto edition of Henry V (1600). Source: Wikipedia
Title page of Paradise Lost, London: 1667, by John Milton (1608-1674). EC65.M6427P.1667aa, Houghton Library, Harvard University
Title page of Paradise Lost (1667). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Lexicographical work on Early Modern English after the completion of OED1

Early Modern English Dictionary

After the completion of the first edition of OED in 1928, the University of Michigan undertook to realize part of Craigie’s vision for subsequent period dictionaries. Its researchers received slips for both the Early Modern and the Middle English periods from Oxford (sent over by an extraordinarily laborious process).5 To begin with, the plan for a dictionary of Early Modern English looked much more viable than that for a dictionary of Middle English. However, only the latter received adequate funding and came to fruition, as described in 1150-1499.

Although the Early Modern English project never issued in a dictionary, it was enthusiastically pursued by the lexicographer and linguist Charles C. Fries. Michigan received about 1.5 million slips from Oxford, and these formed the basis of further work by R. W. Bailey (noted below) and others. Virtually twice the original number of slips were returned to Oxford in 1997 for use in the current OED3 revision (information supplied by R. W. Bailey; for an account of Fries and the EMED project see Bailey 1985).

Subsequent lexical scholarship

Subsequent research on the lexis of this period indicates that – as Craigie foresaw – OED’s documentation of 15th- and 16th-century words and senses can be significantly improved on. Valuable work emending and expanding OED1 coverage 1475-1700 was produced by R. W. Bailey, who worked with Fries to supplement the material dispatched to Michigan in the late 1920s by Oxford University Press, including:

  • a list of c. 4,400 citations of words and senses (taken from articles in Notes and Queries and other printed sources) in the Early Modern English period which were untreated by OED1 (Bailey 1978; completed 1996)
  • an ‘online database of citations collected for the modal verbs and certain other English words for the Early Modern English Dictionary’, available at http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/memem/index.html [accessed 20 February 2019]

Other publications have also shown that OED’s documentation of 15th- and 16th-century words and senses is ripe for revision and expansion. These include

  • Jürgen Schäfer, Documentation in the OED: Shakespeare and Nashe as test cases (1980). Comparing OED1’s treatment of Shakespeare (bapt. 1564-1613) with that of Thomas Nashe (bapt. 1567-c1601), Schäfer showed that time and again OED had favoured Shakespeare’s language. One result was that many words attributed to Shakespeare as first user had already appeared (sometimes decades earlier) in Nashe’s writings – including those elsewhere quoted (and therefore ‘read’) by OED1. Subjecting a sample of OED1 data (meticulously collected) to digital analysis, he was also able to show that the Dictionary’s identification of first uses in the language correlated strongly with intensity of quotation from that source (or period) overall – and moreover that OED1 had given much more attention to the late 16th century than to the 18th
  • Schäfer’s Early Modern English Lexicography (1989), posthumously published, added a further vital dimension to his earlier study. Distributed between two volumes, it examined around 130 sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century monolingual printed glossaries, some 90 of which were also sources for OED1 quotations and/or listed in the OED1 bibliography (published in the first-edition re-issue of 1933), and demonstrated that OED1 had recorded their words and senses partially and inconsistently: Schäfer listed c. 18,400 lemmas, of which c. 3,850 – a fifth or so – had been omitted by OED1. These words cannot be dismissed as ‘dictionary words’ unsuitable for treatment by OED, partly because OED cites many dictionary words from other sources (and also, occasionally, from these sources), but mostly because many of the ‘hard words’ in these early glossaries were taken from examples of real usage, not from other dictionaries
  • R. W. McConchie’s Lexicography and Physicke: The Record of Sixteenth-Century English Medical Terminology (1997) investigated OED1’s treatment of sixteenth-century medical words and senses, finding many words in contemporary medical works which antedated OED1 documentation (even though some of these works, like some of those in Schäfer’s study, were read by OED1 editors or volunteers)
  • Ian Lancashire’s Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME) similarly supplements OED coverage of this period and reveals that language commentary written by contemporary lexicographers contains a wealth of hitherto untapped material. This resource, published by the University of Toronto Press and the University of Toronto Library, searches and displays a database of (as of February 2019) 1,347 ‘monolingual English dictionaries, bilingual lexicons, technical vocabularies, and other encyclopedic-lexical works dated 1480-1702’. See also Lancashire 2003 and 2006.

All these works substantiate Craigie’s view that, despite receiving so much attention, the Early Modern English lexicon is insufficiently represented in OED1 and hence in today’s version(s) of OED. They also illustrate two further significant points, both of which should be taken into account by both literary and linguistic scholars when making inferences about the development of the English language from evidence found in OED:

  • the view of the English lexicon as ‘an artefact whose creation was largely in the hands of literary authors’ (McConchie 1997: 9-10) – a view reflected and in turn fostered by the OED’s favouring of literary sources – is not one that is justified by independent study of sources neglected by OED1
  • OED1’s inspection of sources was (for entirely understandable reasons) often inconsistent and unreliable. In McConchie’s words: ‘sources already scrutinized, and even relatively thoroughly excerpted, may nevertheless be productive of much more material’ (p. 155); ‘the fact of a book’s having already been read is simply no guide to what useful data might still be found in it, unless it can be shown to have been exhaustively excerpted as in the case of Shakespeare’ (pp. 177-8)
Imbalances in OED’s evidence on Early Modern English

Examples of the dangers on relying on OED documentation for judgements on the development of the English language were pointed out most strikingly in Schäfer 1980 (and cf. Schäfer 1989). These warnings were repeated by Terttu Nevalainen in a survey of Early Modern English lexis and semantics for the Cambridge History of English in 1999, which noted that for ‘the Early Modern English period as a whole, the imbalance in primary sources cannot be ignored when assessing lexical growth on the basis of the dictionary [i.e. the OED]’ (Nevalainen 1999: 336-9).

More warnings were issued by Philip Durkin, Deputy Editor of OED3 and Chief Etymologist, in 2002. As he describes, ‘Attempts to characterize the development of the vocabulary of English in various historical periods have, understandably, often taken as their basis the documentation provided by the Oxford English Dictionary’ (Durkin 2002: 65). He states clearly that this is a hazardous undertaking:

  • ‘the overall rate of change [sc. between OED2 and OED3, as the OED3 revision progresses]
    is sufficient to demonstrate that considerable caution should be exercised when using OED2 dates for sixteenth-century items for statistical purposes‘, since ‘approximately a third of OED2 words and senses are being antedated during the course of work on OED3
  • any dictionary dates should be treated with a certain amount of caution‘. (p. 70; cf. pp. 75-6)

Academics continue to use OED uncritically, however, as Nevalainen also noted a few years later (2006 a: 46), not least because in the absence of an Early Modern English Dictionary there is no other comparable collection of lexical information for this period, whether satisfactory or not.6

For more on OED3’s changes for this period, including those reported in Durkin 2002, see the next page, 1500-1699 in OED3.

Last updated on 4 September 2020


  1. As explained at Which edition contains what?, OED2 (1989) reprinted OED1 entries without revision.
  2. On the lexicographers’ constant use of concordances, see Onions 1928, reproduced in our image of the 1928 edition of the Periodical in Historical background. Dates attributed to Shakespeare’s various works in OED1 range from 1591 to 1622 (the latter an outlying Othello quotation); most are before 1613.
  3. Suggested by former OED editor John Simpson in conversation c. 2005.
  4. EOED gratefully acknowledges David-Antoine Williams of Waterloo University, Ontario, for this information, which is derived from the Waterloo OED2 database.
  5. Bailey 1985: 201, n. 4, records Agnes Carswell Fries’s description of the work involved in packing up the OED slips: ‘During 1928 we lived in Oxford and worked with a team of about ten people at tables in the Old Ashmolean building, emptying the boxes of slips which were brought to us there and sorting out, one by one, those slips which had to do with the period 1475 to 1700. It was a monotonous job. At the end of each week Charles [Fries, her husband] piled all the materials into the trunk of our car and took them home to our room on the third floor at number 2 Wellington Square. On Sunday he spent most of the day carefully wrapping them in strong waterproof paper and tying them in 22 pound bundles, sealed with red wax into which he pressed the seal of the University of Michigan. On Monday morning we took them to the post office. The post office would not accept more than 22 pounds for parcel post. Two long summers were spent that way.’
  6. Nevalainen cites a number of studies, some recent, analysing Early Modern English lexis on the basis of OED evidence, to which should be added Bauer 2006. Nevalainen herself makes extensive use of corpus evidence to study 16th-century language. Her university, Helsinki, has been the leader over many decades in developing historical language corpuses to create a sound basis for the understanding of language growth and change, though so far the flood of studies based on corpuses has largely concentrated on morphology and syntax rather than lexis.