1700-1799 in OED1/OED2

This page begins with an outline of the most significant feature of the OED’s treatment of the 18th century, its low quotation numbers. The explanations and consequences of this shortfall are described in First stages of 18th-century collection, and in Murray’s discovery of the deficit of 18th-century quotations when he became editor at the end of the 1870s. This is followed by more detailed analysis of the 18th-century dip in quotations and by discussion of some of the major sources quoted. Commentary on the emerging treatment of 1700-1899 in OED3 can be found on the next page.


OED’s treatment of this period is particularly interesting. Its distinguishing characteristic springs into view immediately we compare the total number of OED1/2 quotations from 1500 onwards century by century, as in the chart below. As we would expect, OED’s documentation of words and senses rises steeply from the Early Modern period through to the late 19th century, corresponding to the expansion of print culture over these years. But there is a significant dip in quotation coverage for the 18th century. This is most surprising, given that these years were characterized by the professionalization of authorship, increasing quantities of money flowing through the publishing business, and a surge in publications, writers and readers (not least of novels, periodicals and newspapers, not to mention dictionaries, grammars and word-books) and in literacy generally.

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

Why does OED represent the 18th century as anomalous? The answer is to be found not in the linguistic and lexical characteristics of the 18th century but in the circumstances in which quotations for the first edition of OED1 were gathered in the second half of the 19th century.

First stages of 18th-century quotation collection for OED1

Soon after the first set of reading lists for OED volunteers was drawn up, it was decided to assign the 18th-century period to American readers. The 1859 Proposal for the new Dictionary reported that ‘the whole of the 18th-century literature has been handed over to our American collaborators’ (p. 6), to be organized by a subcommittee of which G. P. Marsh was to act as Secretary. In May 1860 Herbert Coleridge explained to Trench that this period ‘would have a less chance of finding as many readers in England’ (Coleridge 1860: 72).1

Why did Coleridge feel that British readers would be uninterested in the 18th century? Many Victorians had an unfavourable view of the literature of this period. In his book on William Blake published in 1868, the poet Swinburne reminded his readers that his author lived in a time ‘when the very notion of poetry, as we now understand it, had totally died and decayed out of the minds of men; when we not only had no poetry, a thing which was bearable, but had verse in plenty; a thing which was not in the least bearable’.2

Such disregard was not universal – Pope was much admired, for example – but was apparently sufficiently prevalent for 18th-century quotation collection to be out-sourced to the more sympathetic Americans.3 This decision turned out to be a misjudgement.

Murray discovers 18th-century deficit in 1879

Twenty years later, when Murray became editor of the OED in 1879, he found that there was a serious deficiency in 18th-century quotation slips. In the Appeal he issued that year, he reported:

It is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed. The American scholars promised to get the eighteenth-century literature taken up in the United States, a promise which they appear not to have to any extent fulfilled, and we must now appeal to English readers to share the task, for nearly the whole of that century’s books, with the exception of Burke’s works, have still to be gone through.

Murray 1879a: 3, reproduced on OED Online website page at https://public.oed.com/history/archives/april-1879-appeal/ [accessed 24 April 2019]

This remark seems to be the ultimate source of Schäfer’s statement (1980: 53) that ‘because of a breakdown in organization’, the 18th-century slips assigned to American readers ‘never reached Murray’s scriptorium’. Schäfer’s implication is that the slips had been lost; rather it appears that they had never been written in the first place. It should be added that American readers, particularly university academics, were subsequently enormously productive of slips, as Murray gratefully acknowledged (1880: 123-4).

The 1879 Appeal was accompanied by a ‘List of books for which readers are wanted’, on which a note on the 18th-century section – reproduced below – begins: ‘the literature of this century has hardly been touched. Readers are safe with almost any eighteenth century book they can lay their hands on’. Forty-six works or authors, many literary, are named as ‘books that ought to be read’.

First part of list of 18th-century books for readers, issued with Murray’s 1879 Appeal (Murray 1879a).
Source: OED archives
Second part of list of 18th-century books for readers, issued with Murray’s 1879 Appeal (Murray 1879a). Source: OED archives

Also in 1879, Murray issued a ‘List of eighteenth century books and of American books, already read’, for the use of a further set of American volunteers who were asked to submit their quotation slips to Prof. F. A. March of Pennsylvania.4

Poets, novelists, philosophers, and other men of letters feature prominently in these lists – and there are even two women mentioned, Elizabeth Inchbald and Mary Wortley Montagu (respectively at the foot of the 1st image and head of the 2nd image above) – but comparing the lists with the 18th-century sources eventually quoted in the Dictionary does not yield easily interpretable results. Pope is OED’s most-quoted author from this period, and is not mentioned (it seems) in any list; Cowper, however, whose name does appear (see first image above), ended up with almost as many; Inchbald, now remembered principally as the author of Lovers’ Vows, 1798, the play which featured significantly in Austen’s Mansfield Park, received almost no attention at all with just 61 quotations, though Wortley Montagu was (for a woman) quoted in profusion, with around 675 quotations.5 For more on OED’s low rate of quotations from 18th-century female authors, see our Leverhulme study.

Murray toiled heroically to fill the ‘serious gaps’ he found in the quotation material inherited from Furnivall. In 1884, he described how, ‘for more than five-sixths of the words we have had to search out and find additional quotations in order to complete their history, and illustrate the senses; for every word we have had to make a general search to discover whether any earlier or later quotations, or quotations in other senses, exist (Murray 1884b: 515-16). Where the 18th century was concerned, he had a windfall from ‘John Wycliffe Wilson, Esq., of Sheffield’, who ‘sent us a box of some hundred volumes of 18th c. literature’. Reporting this to the Philological Society in 1880, Murray declared that that the deficiency in slips for that century had been ‘to a great extent supplied’ (Murray 1880: 124-5). This judgement is belied by Chart 10 in the section below, however, which shows a clear shortfall, notably from 1730-1779.

For more, please see OED1 quotation collection.

18c dip in quotations

Chart 10: Total quotations in OED1/2 1700-1799

There can be no question that the first (and therefore second) edition of the OED has disproportionately low documentation of language usage over this period of the language: the 18th century is the only century where quotation figures actually decline decade on decade rather than rising. As explained in the section above, this is most obviously explained by the problems encountered in amassing quotation evidence. Can we be sure, however, that the shortfall of quotations was not also due to the inherent characteristics of the evidence available – that is, did lexical productivity in some way decline over these years?

The obvious way to answer this question is by searching recently available databases of texts published over this period, notably ECCO (Eighteenth-century Books Online), to see whether the OED1 lexicographers could have put in more quotations if they had had access to a wider range of texts.

Such an experiment was carried out over ten years ago, as described in Brewer 2007a (see EOED Library). As there explained, there are around 18,000 entries in OED1 with no 18th-century quotations at all, but with quotations both before and after 1700-1799. And there are many other entries (it’s impossible to say how many, unfortunately) with some 18th-century quotations, but far fewer than those from 17th or 19th centuries. A typical example of the latter category is the verb report, which has many quotations from before and after 1700-1799 but few between those years:

Distribution across centuries of quotations for verb report in OED1/2 (all senses)
14c 15c 16c 17c 18c 19c 20c TOTAL
2 15 33 29 6 34 14 133

Brewer 2007a provides evidence showing that the OED1 18th-century shortfall for report can easily be made up with quotations sourced from ECCO (including a number from Pope’s translation of Homer, incidentally, which was much quoted elsewhere in OED; see EOED page on Pope in Literary sources). As the article also illustrates, this experiment can be easily repeated with other words with disproportionately few (or no) 18th-century quotations in OED. The only possible conclusion is that the 18th-century ‘dip’ in OED was due to editorial choices and constraints rather than to the innate characteristics of language over this period.

Major 18c sources in OED1

Given the relatively low supply of quotation slips for the 18th century, it is particularly interesting to see which sources turn out to have been dominant in illustrating the history and use of vocabulary in the Dictionary over this period. The chart below, derived from searches of OED2 data available before 2010, identifies some (but not all!) of the most quoted authors:

Chart 11: Some major sources in OED1/2 1700-1799

As clearly appears, OED1 favoured canonical literary authors as principal sources of quotations for this period as for others, with the two poets Pope and Cowper emerging neck and neck at the head of the list at around 5,800 quotations apiece. By contrast, the much less well-regarded William Blake was quoted only 80 times for work published in the 18th century and only 107 times in all.

But there is one striking anomaly in Chart 11, the high ranking given to the non-literary Nathan Bailey (d. 1742), whose total of around c 4,500 quotations is drawn almost entirely from his dictionary entries (along with an additional 80-odd citations from his translation of Erasmus’ Colloquies).

Bailey’s dictionaries, though now much less well known than Johnson’s famous work, dominated the 18th-century lexicographical landscape and were still regularly used into the 19th century. Most popular was his Universal Etymological Dictionary (first published 1721, with nearly 30 subsequent editions), from which the bulk of OED’s quotations were taken, but the lexicographers also cited Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730), now remembered as forming a significant foundation to Johnson’s preparation of his own Dictionary of the Language (1755); see Reddick 1990.

Could the abundant citation from Bailey’s dictionaries be due to the relative scarcity of what the OED lexicographers call ‘contextual’ quotations – i.e., those illustrating the use of a word in context? This is certainly a plausible hypothesis. In general, the quotations from Bailey’s dictionaries take the form ‘lemma + definition, e.g. battle, v3, ‘to feed as Cattle do; to grow fat’. Such quotations are meta-linguistic instances of usage: in other words, they have not occurred ‘naturally’ but have been made up by the lexicographer to illustrate a word-list. For obvious reasons, the OED has always preferred contextual to meta-linguistic quotations: contextual quotations incontestably illustrate genuine language use, while the latter are linguistically motivated representations of language which may never have occurred in the real world. So it is safe to conclude that there is certainly a relationship between the dominance of Bailey in OED1 over these years and the problems encountered in gathering together sufficient evidence from primary sources.

Johnson’s Dictionary was also cited liberally in OED1 but makes up a much smaller proportion of his quotations: around 1,470 out of a total of around 5,540.6 In other ways, though, the work was deeply influential on the OED, not least because it was the first ever dictionary of English to be constructed from quotations, many of which were gratefully reproduced by the OED1 lexicographers. See further EOED’s pages under Historical Background on Johnson’s Dictionary, along with Silva 2005, an article which most usefully describes OED’s use of Johnson’s definitions and quotations both in the past and for the OED3 revision.

The other key characteristic of OED’s 18th-century quotations is the new importance of novels as sources (Defoe, Richardson, Burney), along with the first example of quotation in any significant quantity from a female author (Burney). Burney was quoted not just from her novels but also from her letters and journals – and her total of 1,950 quotations recorded in our chart above is a rare example of OED2 data being a not altogether reliable indication of the equivalent in OED1. This total includes a number of quotations later added to OED by R. W. Burchfield in the second Supplement (1972-86) and subsequently incorporated, therefore, in OED2.7 For more on the under-quotation of 18th-century female authors see EOED pages reporting our Leverhulme study.

All these features deserve to be researched in much greater detail – not least because the search tools available at the time this research was originally undertaken (c 2005) are inferior to those now on the OED website. It’s now possible, using OED Online’s list of ‘top 1,000 authors and works quoted in the OED’, to identify major 18th-century sources for OED1 that EOED missed when we assessed quotation evidence for Chart 11. For these and for the new treatment now emerging on OED3, go to next page.

Last updated on 28 July 2020


  1. Scanned images of both Coleridge’s letter to Trench and the appeal Marsh issued to his fellow countrymen can be see on the OED Online website.
  2. See Swinburne 1868: 8; available on the Archive.org website at https://archive.org/details/williamblakecrit00swinrich [accessed 24 April 2019]
  3. For discussion of Victorian views of 18th-century literature and language, see the essays in O’Gorman and Turner 2004.
  4. As noted in Gilliver 2000: 242, March (1825-1911) was ‘professor of English Language and Comparative Philology at Lafayette College (the first chair of its kind in the United States), from 1857’. He published a grammar of Anglo-Saxon in 1870 and also worked (with Israel Funk) on the Standard Dictionary of 1895.
  5. Thanks to James McCracken for supplying information on OED2’s (hence OED1’s) Inchbald quotations.
  6. Thanks again to James McCracken of OED for supplying information on OED2’s (hence OED1’s) quotation from both Bailey and Johnson.
  7. Burchfield included various other pre-1900 quotations, many (like Burney’s) from editions of letters and journals published after the completion of OED1; see further Brewer 2015: 752. It was impossible, pre-2010, to ascertain the exact numbers in each case from the electronic version of OED2 then available – and it is also impossible to do this today on OED Online. Around 100 of Burney’s OED2 quotations are from works published in the 19th century.