1700-1799 in OED3

This page begins with some general data and comments (at Outline) before discussing the changes now emerging in OED3 in the treatment of major individual 18th-century quotation sources. Finally, we take advantage of OED’s Online improved search tools to review some additional major sources for this period (including a striking increase in quotations from the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions).


As usual, to see the changes made during the course of revising the 1989 version of the OED (OED2), we have to compare OED2 data with that derived from the mixture of revised and unrevised entries in OED Online (collected December 2018).

Chart 12: Total quotations in OED1/2 and OED Online (Dec 2018) 1500-1899 by century

As immediately appears, the 18th-century dip in quotations is far less marked in the current version of OED Online (i.e. as of December 2018). This must reflect an appropriately targeted drive by the OED3 revisers to amass new quotations, whose chronological distribution can be seen in more detail in the chart below:

Chart 13: Total quotations in OED1/2 & OED Online (Dec 2018) 1700-1799

Notwithstanding the overall increase in quotations for this century, however, the revision seems still to be following the broad chronological outline set by OED1. Without privileged access to OED3-only data it is impossible for observers of OED’s revision to identify and analyse the new quotations and we must wait for the lexicographers to tell us more.

Major sources in OED1/2 and OED Online 1700-1799 compared

Meanwhile, though, we can compare the changes to OED’s record of some of the highly quoted sources for this period:1

Chart 14: Major sources in OED1/2 and OED Online (Dec 2018) 1700-1799

Several interesting findings emerge here. Three authors have lost quotations: Bailey (-757), Pope (-476), and Johnson (-374). The others have all gained, with notable increases for Defoe (+1,030), Fielding (+815), Richardson (+803), and Burney (+535).

Why? It is impossible to identify the quotations concerned, given the lack of electronic access to OED2. But we can hazard some guesses as to the reasons in each case for these various changes.

Bailey and Johnson. As discussed on the previous page (1700-1799 in OED1/2) virtually all of Bailey’s OED1 quotations, and a significant number of Johnson’s, simply reproduced entries from their respective dictionaries as evidence of usage of a word. Where possible, the OED revisers will have replaced this dictionary citation evidence with examples of ‘contextual’ usage, i.e. examples occurring in a non-linguistic context.

Pope. Here the explanation for the apparent loss is quite different. OED3 has taken a new view on the authorship of the work most cited in OED for this author, his translation of Homer’s Odyssey (25% of Pope’s entire quotations, though OED cited only from the first 5 of the total run of 23 Books). As explained in our page on Pope in Literary sources, Pope enlisted the help of two collaborators for this translation, and was alone responsible for only two of the first five Books, However he revised the work of the two other contributors (William Broome and Elijah Fenton) before the work was published and he took overall authorial credit for the whole.

At some stage post-2010 OED3 took the decision to re-attribute the Odyssey quotations to the original drafter, thus depriving Pope of his authorship. It is this decision, it seems, that explains the fall in quotations between OED2 and OED Online visible in the chart above: i.e. the quotations are still there in the OED, but are now counted differently in electronic searches.

If, instead of drawing information from the OED’s own list of Top sources (following the link to ‘Sources’ on the front page of the OED website) we instead use the more complicated Advanced search method of searching for Pope (also available from the OED website front page), we can see that his quotations have actually increased! from 5,804 to 6,285.2 Given the vagaries of OED electronic searching, these numbers cannot be exact, but the increase is striking nevertheless – especially in view of OED3’s declared intention to quote more from non-literary sources in order to counter-balance the already strong representation of canonical sources.3

At the time of writing (June 2019) there are some additional inconsistencies in authorship attribution which have been reported to OED.

From 1st edition of Robinson Crusoe (1719), currently Defoe’s most quoted novel in the OED. Source: Wikipedia

Defoe, Fielding and Richardson. Without further investigation of the quotations concerned one cannot be sure, but it may be that novels have proved particularly rich sources for the sort of vocabulary historically under-treated in the OED. Certainly they provide a prose ballast to the large quantities of quotations from poets Pope and Cowper that still dominate 18th-century coverage.

Burney. Burney is notable simply by virtue of being the only female author on the chart. As explained on the previous page (at Major 18c sources in OED1), she is also unusual as a pre-1850 author in having new quotations from her works (in this case, journals and letters) added to OED after completion of the first edition in 1928. OED Online indicates that something over 30% of Burney’s OED quotations today (i.e., the current mixture of unrevised OED2 and revised OED3 combined) are from her letters and journals. Without further information from the OED editors we cannot tell whether the new OED3 quotations are being collected from these sources, from her novels, or from a combination of the two. Either way the increase in quotation would seem to be the result of the OED3 initiative to record more from sources outside the traditional male-dominated literary canon – though it is striking how male canonical poets, novelists and other writers continue to dominate the OED record after nearly 20 years of OED3 revision, as illustrated by the much larger numbers of new quotations the OED3 revisers have added from Defoe, Fielding and Richardson (see further below).4

Frances Burney © NPG. Source: British Library

OED Online’s ‘Top 1,000 sources’ – June 2019: 18th-century

The chart below takes newly available evidence from OED Online’s list of top 1,000 authors and works quoted in OED in its current form (accessed 12 June 2019, the time of writing), which allows us to see more detail about major 18th-century sources – in particular, their identity and their ranking, here indicated by the number in brackets after their name. (EOED’s original research on period coverage and top sources drew on the pre-2010 OED website, before the introduction of more sophisticated search tools, and could use only trial and error searches). The cut-off point for inclusion for Chart 21 was chosen as c 2 500 quotations, which allowed us to squeeze in Frances Burney (2,488).5

However, this reckoning does not take into account the enormous number of new quotations from a multi-authored source which the OED3 revisers have added to their record of 18th-century usage – 7,780 in total from issues of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. Since this dwarfs the relative proportions of the single-author sources we discuss it in a separate section below, with a separate chart (click on the link to read).

Chart 15: From OED Online ‘Top 1,000 sources’ for 1700-1799 (June 2019)

Five of the top sources displayed above are newcomers to our charts – in other words, they are either sources EOED did not spot when we identified major suppliers of 18th-century quotations in our pre-2010 research, or – theoretically possible, but unlikely in all five cases – entirely new sources for OED3; the website’s search tools do not allow us to distinguish between these two possibilities. The five additional sources include the novelists Goldsmith and Smollett (around 4,500 and 2,500 quotations respectively) and the prose writer Steele (just over 4,000) – all three reinforcing the dominance of canonical male writers representing the language of this period.

Title page to vol 1 of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopædia (1728). Source: Wikipedia

The remaining two sources are lexicographical ones, Ephraim Chambers (c 3,800 quotations) and Edward Phillips (c 2,600), who instead add to the remarkable role played by dictionaries in OED’s 18th-century documentation. Almost all of Chambers’ quotations come from his 2-volume Cyclopædia, principally the first edition of 1728, while Phillips’s tally is entirely from the one-volume The new world of words, technically the 6th edition of a work originally published in 1658 but in fact a posthumous new version by John Kersey of 1706. This was notable for its inclusion of dialectal and agricultural words (‘Country-Words’, as Kersey called them) as well as many scientific and technical terms.6

As was the case with Bailey (discussed under Major sources on the previous page), OED’s heavy citation from dictionaries indicates a lack of quotations from other sources, and it is interesting that this continues to be the case given the OED3 revisers’ access to a hugely extended range of texts. Further exploration of the entries and quotations concerned – many of which seem to be for unusual words – is needed before we can identify and assess what is causing this phenomenon.

It is additionally notable that after nearly 20 years of OED3 revision Burney remains the only highly quoted female author from this period, despite the dramatic increase in publication by female authors over the century, with more women than men publishing novels by 1800. The only other 18th-century female author included in OED Online’s 1,000 most quoted sources, at a dispiriting 882nd place on the list, is the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith (553 quotations, none from her poetry, a few from her letters, almost all from her novels). The single female author in the 18th-century section of Murray’s Appeal list of 1879, the well known and influential dramatist and novelist Elizabeth Inchbald, is even today represented by a meagre 112 quotations in total (i.e. an increase of 51 quotations from her OED2 total of 61).7 The continued reluctance of the OED3 revision to improve the representation of the language from female-authored sources to any significant extent, given their wide availability, is inexplicable: female authors currently (July 2019) occupy 28 of the 1,000 slots on the OED Online list. See further Fe/male sources.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
Poster of first 5 women to be published in Philosophical Transactions. Source: Wikipedia

Only one woman, the astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), contributed to the 18th-century issues of the publication which is now the most quoted source for this period in the OED, the multi-authored Philosophical Transactions (digitally searchable and available by subscription online at https://royalsocietypublishing.org/journal/rstl). Remarkably, this single example is cited in one of OED3’s revised entries as the first recorded use of the phrase out of focus, antedating the OED1 quotation of 1894: ‘1786 C. Herschel Let. 2 Aug. in Philos. Trans. 1787 (Royal Soc.) 77 2 The object in the center is like a star out of focus,..and I suspect it to be a comet.’ The letter records the discovery of one of the 8 comets found in total by Herschel. (Her brother William is cited in the same entry as first user of the phrase in focus, also in reference to an astronomical telescope: Hardly visible, and like a star not in focus’ (1785) and also from the Philosophical Transactions).8

OED3’s striking new treatment of Philosophical Transactions deserves a separate study. As recorded in Willinsky (1994: 214), OED1 quoted this journal, over its entire publication range (1665 onwards), 9,546 times in all, a number that has now risen steeply to 15,887 in OED Online as of June 2019, the new total reflecting an undifferentiated mixture of revised with unrevised entries (see screen shot at Top Sources in OED3).

It’s possible that in quoting so intensively from this multi-authored source the lexicographers have been seeking to mitigate the deficiency of quotations in OED1 representing the first half of the century – though 2,774 of the Transactions quotations are now from 1700-1749, as opposed to 5,006 now from 1750-1799. It’s also possible they are seeking to improve the representation of scientific and specialized vocabulary in the OED. The sample words instanced by the ‘Timeline’ display on the website for 18th-century quotations from this journal has a high proportion (7 out of 10) of such words: abridgement, afore-, ballote, bibliothecary, carcinomatous, athletic, chlamys, chrysalid, concreate (verb), coralloid.

But the other notable feature of OED3’s use of Philosophical Transactions is that their rate of quotation declined sharply between December 2010 (by which time 5,373 new quotations had been added, bringing the total to 14,919) and June 2019 (only 968 further quotations added). So marked a change indicates a methodological shift by the lexicographers rather than any intrinsic characteristic of the lexical data concerned: the revisers have simply been looking elsewhere for their new quotations. See related discussion at Changes to top sources in OED1/OED2 in our page on Top sources in OED3.

Chart 23: From OED Online ‘Top 1,000 sources’ for 1700-1799 (June 2019), including multi-authored Philosophical Transactions quotations 1700-1799

Philosophical Transactions stands at no 4 in the OEDO ‘Top quoted’ list of June 2019, for its entire run of issues quoted between 1675 and the present. Were its 7,780 quotations for 1700-1799 to be considered independently, they would rank in between the translator Holland at 7,993 (no 23) and the late 14th century writer John Lydgate at 7,169 (no 24).

Last updated on 28 July 2020


  1. The OED Online data was gathered from the totals for OED’s Top 1,000 sources as listed on the OED website after the quarterly update of December 2018. As of the time of writing, 15 June 2019, the OED Online totals are virtually unchanged from those of December 2018, ranging from -9 for Burke and + 6 for Defoe.
  2. As searched on 7 June 2019, in Advanced search/Quotations/Quotation author (Pope)/Date filter (1710-1750).
  3. See https://public.oed.com/history/oed-editions/preface-to-the-third-edition/#documentation (accessed 11 June 2019).
  4. Around 170 of Burney’s quotations in OED Online as of June 2019 – from her last novel, The Wanderer (1814), and from her journals and letters – are post-1799.
  5. Next after Burney, of the 18th-century sources on the OED Online list, come Walpole (2,336) and yet another dictionary, another edition (1751–1753) of Chambers’ Cyclopedia.
  6. See Starnes and Noyes 1991: 84–89, Osselton 1958: 44–59.
  7. For more on Inchbald, see Robertson 2013 and her ODNB entry, Spencer 2004 (subscription required).
  8. OED Online revised entry for focus, n., consulted 25 August 2019. On Caroline Herschel see the ODNB entry, Hoskin 2004; subscription required; also Richard Holmes 2010 (‘The Royal Society’s lost women scientists’), available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/21/royal-society-lost-women-scientists [accessed 24 April 2020].