1800-1929 in OED1/OED2

This page discusses the representation of the 19th century (and early 20th century) in the first edition of OED, as displayed in Chart 16 below. After some General remarks (including a note on Burchfield’s later additions of early 20th-century entries), a short section on editorial activities Pre-1879 considers the minimal evidence available on work for this period before Murray’s arrival as editor in 1879. A longer section on activities Post-1879 looks at Murray’s initial confidence in his supply of 19th-century quotations, followed by his later push to gather them from culturally dominant writers of the time. After noting the Special importance of vocabulary from the sciences over this period we discuss the Treatment of individual authors, with Chart 17 displaying major 19th-century sources. OED3’s treatment of this period to date (so far as is ascertainable) is treated on the next page, 1800-1929 in OED3.

General remarks

The first edition of the OED contained more quotations for the 19th century than for any other, as is clearly indicated by the pie chart below.

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

Chart 16 shows the decade-by-decade detail for the 19th and early 20th century (OED1 was completed in 1928), with the number rising steeply up to the decade 1890-1899 then declining.

Chart 16: Total quotations in OED1/2 1800-19291

The most obvious reason for this distribution of quotations is that the vocabulary expanded between 1150 and the 19th century, so that there were more words in circulation over the period 1800-1899 than at any point in the past. While some words from earlier periods had fallen out of use, more continued to be used and still more were coined, which meant that the overall total continued to increase. Murray aimed to illustrate every word with at least one quotation per century, so more words in currency in any period would inevitably have resulted in more OED quotations for that century.2 By the same logic, the total would have continued to increase throughout the 19th century – with the peak at 1890-1899.

The subsequent fall is unlikely to reflect any corresponding reduction in lexical productivity. Instead, the lexicographers were presumably putting the bulk of their energy into analyzing their existing supplies of quotations rather than searching out more, as editorial attention turned to writing and publishing the emerging new volumes. See the eye-witness account of Murray’s editorial labours in this respect in our page on Identifying and discriminating meaning, and the section on post-1879 collection below.3

There are two other possible reasons for the abundance of 19th-century quotations in OED, both of which have more to do with the circumstances of compiling the Dictionary than with the innate characteristics of the English language. 

  • First, this was the period most familiar to the lexicographers. They and their readers would be less likely to omit vocabulary eligible for inclusion, and more likely to identify nuances and varying senses of existing words. 
  • Secondly – owing perhaps to the large number of contemporary quotations supplied by readers, who were naturally more exposed to written texts from this period of English than from any other – the lexicographers may have chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to exceed the normal quota of one quotation per century for each identified sense of a word. It is not possible to test this second possibility one way or another, since the electronic search facilities on OED Online do not permit analysis of entries to this degree of detail. Nevertheless, serendipitous investigation certainly indicates that many entries list more quotations per sense for the 19th century than for previous centuries.
Note on Burchfield’s additions of early 20th-century entries to OED1

Chart 16 is derived from OED2 data, and therefore represents the pre-1930 material added by Burchfield in the Second Supplement (1972-86) as well as OED1’s original entries. It is striking therefore that Burchfield did not bring the number of early 20th-century quotations in the OED record up to the level of those for the 19th.

The explanation for this is straightforward. Burchfield’s principal aim had been to identify and record new words or senses since 1928, not to update the quotation record for words already treated in OED1 (despite the fact that many, presumably most, of these words were still current 20th-century English). When Burchfield’s Supplement was merged with OED1 to create the printed OED2 – along with the electronic database from which chart 16 is derived – the record for 20th-century vocabulary became incongruous, since many thousands of current words were not supported with quotations beyond 1880 or so. The consequence was that OED2’s attestation and treatment of the recent usage of words already in existence by the time of OED1, and still current in the 1980s – i.e. the bulk of the English lexicon – was often deficient. It is not surprising that the current revision of the Dictionary, OED3, has enormously increased quotations for this period, though not, so far, to a sufficient extent to correct this late 19th and early 20th-century deficit: see the next page, 1800-1929 in OED3.

Pre-1879 collection of 19th-century quotations

The evidence here is deficient, given the uncertain progress of the Dictionary in its early days (see Early progress). The Philological Society’s Proposal had specified a list of 19th-century writers (mainly literary) as especially significant likely sources, but their eventual representation in the OED was variable (see chart below). The first edition of Murray’s public Appeal of 1879 (the date he was appointed to the job of Editor) briefly summarized the state of collection of 19th-century quotations at that date, which seems to have been good in parts:

The nineteenth century books, being within the reach of every one, have been read widely; but a large number remain unrepresented, not only of those published during the last ten years, while the Dictionary has been in abeyance, but also of earlier date.

Murray 1879a: 3 (see online text at https://public.oed.com/history/archives/april-1879-appeal/ [accessed 23 July 2019])

Over the page, Murray wrote:

‘Any one can help, especially with modern books; thus from these, Dr Murray’s own pupils have supplied him with 5000 good quotations during the past month.’ Murray’s Appeal also included a ‘List of books for which readers are wanted’, grouped by century, which was adjusted in the two later editions (1879 and 1880) as readers offered their services.

Post-1879 collection of 19th-century quotations

The take-up rate for the 19th-century works seems to have been the best for any of the periods, judging by the rate of substitution of works between the three successive editions of the Appeal. This is not surprising, given that – as we have seen Murray acknowledge – readers would have better access to more recent than to earlier works (and might well have preferred reading them, too). Identifying words eligible for inclusion in the Dictionary would also have seemed a simpler task with near-contemporary works, requiring less specialized knowledge.

Catalogue of books from Mudie’s Circulating Library. Source: British Library

In all editions of the Appeal, the list for the 19th-century section is the longest, reflecting the eventual proportion of quotations devoted to this period. In the first edition, Murray names one hundred works or authors and notes that ‘more of this is done than of the eighteenth century, but much remains to do…slips from any current book, review, or other work are acceptable’. This mention of reviews significantly directs readers towards contemporary periodical literature, which was to receive extensive treatment in OED (see Willinsky 1994: 118-27); the direction is repeated in a note to readers at the end of the third edition which particularly asks for new words from ‘contemporary magazines, reviews, literary and scientific journals’, suggesting that Murray regarded such literature as the best source for neologisms (see further Newspapers [an EOED page as of July 2019 not yet published but in preparation under Topics]).

By 1880, one year after the Appeal had been issued, Murray reported that the deficiency in slips for ‘the literature of the present’ had been ‘to a great extent supplied’ (Murray 1880: 125). But this confidence in the adequate representation of contemporary sources had disappeared by 1892 when Murray called for ‘Dr. Furnivall, or some other competent person, [to] draw up from Mudie’s catalogue or other source, a list of works published since 1875’ to enable them to represent literature of last quarter of the nineteenth century (Murray 1892: 275). Our image of the front page of such a catalogue, dated 1878, gives a good idea of the sort of literature lent out by Mudie’s popular and influential circulating library: ‘Books of the Best Authors…well adapted for Drawing-Room Tables and Gentlemen’s Libraries’.4 Murray must have been uncomfortably aware that he was working too slowly to keep up with the language, and that it was hard to record contemporary English satisfactorily when it was changing every day – moreover, by this stage the bulk of his energies needed to be focussed on drafting and editing entries to produce copy for the printers.

It is not surprising therefore that quotations for the years at the end of the 19th century fall off sharply – and that the decline continues even more markedly into the beginning of the 20th century, as the editing of quotations slowly reached its end point.5 Despite the conspicuous flood of new words continuing to enter the language over this period, including those relating to the First World War and in many specialized fields ranging from art to aviation, the lexicographers (and their long-suffering publishers) were almost wholly concentrated on getting the Dictionary finished. They could not prolong their labours by paying due attention to new evidence. This is one of the reasons why the lexicographers and publishers recognized over the 1920s that they would need to publish a Supplement as soon as possible after completing the original Dictionary in 1928.

Special importance of science

As for previous centuries, Murray’s Appeal lists for the 19th century are dominated by literary works, with theological, historical, and philosophical ones close behind. But there is also a small number of completely different titles: John Tyndall’s Alpine Glaciers (1860), Lyell’s ‘Geological Works’, the works of Faraday and Darwin, and Grove’s Correlation of Physical Forces (1874).

John Tyndall (n.d.). Source: The Guardian

This looks as if it indicates a wish on Murray’s part to widen the range of the recorded lexicon. Tyndall’s various works were eventually to yield c. 2,400 quotations, a substantial total, of which the two-volume Alpine Glaciers accounted for around 1,580.6 Many of the words cited from this writer are not specifically scientific or otherwise technical, though vocabulary cited from the other scientists just named had a much higher proportion of technical terms, with attention being given to specialist use of less obviously technical terms too. For example, in the entry for the noun struggle, a special biological sense is identified of the phrase ‘struggle for existence, for life’, said to be ‘used metaphorically to describe the relation between coexisting organic species when the causes tending to the survival of one tend to the extinction of another’, and supported with quotations from both Lyell and Darwin.7

Charles Darwin photographed in 1878. Source: The Guardian

Why should Murray have specially solicited scientific vocabulary for the 19th as opposed to earlier centuries, as these 1879 lists suggest?8 Possible answers are:

  • scientific progress and scientific discoveries had penetrated general culture (and hence language) far more than in previous generations. For example, OED originator R. C. Trench repeatedly used geological imagery when talking about language (see Fossil poetry), and evolutionary imagery was diffusing into contemporary novels too (see Beer 1983)
  • this recognition was shared by the educated public and more especially by the OED readers 
  • 19th-century scientific works were more available to the readers than those from earlier periods (Darwin, Lyell, Faraday and Grove reappear on each of the two subsequent editions of the Appeal‘s list of authors to be read, suggesting that their works were not enthusiastically snatched up by readers).

It is notable that the only two exclusively 19th-century works on Willinsky’s list of ‘Top Twenty Books by Citation in OED1’ are Edward Knight’s Practical Dictionary of Mechanics (1874,1877) and Thomas C. Allbut’s System of Medicine (1896, 1899). Both these reference works were intensively quoted: Knight’s 3,813 times and Allbutt’s 3,629 times.9

For more on Murray’s treatment of scientific vocabulary see Hoare and Salmon (2000) and Mugglestone (2005: chapter 5); for more on the Appeal lists and OED sources generally see Brewer (2000). Scientific vocabulary was one of the areas of language singled out for special treatment in both the First and the Second Supplement, and some of OED2’s entries for scientific words pre-1929 will have been added at these two later stages, after the completion of OED1. For characteristic difficulties in identifying appropriate terms, see brief treatment at Spoof slip for radium: the word was missed by Murray and later inserted in the 1933 Supplement.

Treatment of individual authors

Some of the major literary authors of the 19th century were represented in OED1 with strikingly high numbers of quotations – first and foremost Walter Scott – along with other cultural giants like Carlyle and Ruskin. Chart 17 shows EOED’s attempt to identify the most-quoted authors from this period in our pre-2010 investigations of the electronic OED2 – that is, when it was still possible to search the OED2 database, but before the website improved its search engines and published its own list of most-quoted sources in the composite form of the Dictionary, mixing together present and past entries, that constitutes OED Online.10 Our next page, 1800-1929 in OED3, reveals some additional likely major 19th-century sources in OED1, and shows how the record is changing for the ones displayed here.

Chart 17: Major 19th-century authors in OED2

Scott, Tennyson and Dickens are among the most-quoted sources for the OED overall (see Top sources), another indication of the special treatment given the 19th century. The chart includes one female author only, whose 3,000-odd quotations far outstrip those recorded for any other female at any stage in the OED’s composition (see Fe/male sources).

Sir Walter Scott, novelist and poet, painted by Sir William Allen. Source: Wikipedia

The nature of the vocabulary recorded from all these authors is a topic ripe for study: are they for everyday and slang uses (as seems to be the case with many of the Dickens quotations) or for eccentric ones (as seems to be the case with a significant proportion of the Scott quotations), or for a mixture, and how does this mixture vary between the authors? Do such variations tell us about the (linguistic) characteristics of a particular writer, or about the (cultural) preferences of the OED readers and lexicographers?

Chart 17 should be compared with Chart 18 (in our section on OED1 quotation collection), which displays the eventual totals for the ‘principal authors’ initially identified by the early lexicographers in 1859 as the main contemporary sources for volunteer readers to concentrate on (‘Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Southey, Tennyson, Ruskin, Macaulay, and Froude may be mentioned as pre-eminently important’, as they put it in Proposal 1859: 6; see heading Principal writers on our page on Initial practice in assembling quotations for OED1). All ended up highly quoted, though Wordsworth, first to be named, less than any of the others. It is irresistible to consider this in relation to Wordsworth’s poetic project to investigate how far ‘the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’ could be used as a medium for poetry’ (Wordsworth and Coleridge 1798: i): it is possible that the volunteer readers were more drawn to the sometimes eccentric vocabulary and often high-flown diction of writers like Carlyle and Tennyson – and of course Scott (whose vocabulary is briefly discussed at Top sources).

Last updated on 25 June 2020


  1. Our chart observes our convention of recording quotation totals for complete decades, hence continues to 1929 not 1928 (the date of publication of the last instalment of OED1).
  2. In the General Explanations (p. xxii) Murray stated that the quotations ‘are arranged chronologically, so as to give about one for each century, though various considerations often render a larger number necessary’. This principle had been established at least as early as 1896 (as recorded on page 8 of a document prepared for the OUP Delegates entitled ‘New English Dictionary. Correspondence and minutes (April 24 1896)’ (OED/B/2/2/1)). In practice, the number of quotations per century has varied considerably, as any cursory glance at pages of any edition of OED will reveal. See further Brewer 2007a: 107-8 (via our Library link), also the section on Documentation in the Preface to the Third Edition of OED: https://public.oed.com/history/oed-editions/preface-to-the-third-edition/#documentation [accessed 24 October 2019].
  3. Many years later, the lexicographer A. J. Aitken (who succeeded the OED1 editor W. A. Craigie in editing the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, Craigie et al 1937-2002) suggested that analyzing quotations took three times as long as collecting them (Aitken 1971: 9).
  4. The library was founded by Charles Edward Mudie (1818–1890); see information with further images at the British Library website [accessed 23 July 2019].
  5. Murray claimed in 1901 that the Dictionary had already amassed five million quotations: see our page on Early progress.
  6. Professor John Tyndall (1820-1893) was an eminent physicist and became a friend of Carlyle in the latter’s old age; see his entry in ODNB [subscription required].
  7. Darwin was quoted 1,623 times altogether in OED1, Lyell 1,165 times, Faraday 446 times, and the volume by W. R. Grove 177 times. Sixty-one of Darwin’s total quotations are from his joint publication (1880) of Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, many of which are for technical words.
  8. A note at the end of the list, hence applying apparently to all periods, welcomes ‘offers to read any other book…especially early treatises on any of the sciences’. Although this was repeated in the second and third editions of the Appeal, the number of scientific works listed for the earlier periods is small.
  9. See Willinsky 1994: 213 (Table 7.1) and also Chart 32: Top individually-authored sources in OED Online (June 2019) 1800-1929.
  10. Chart 17 represents authors with more than c 2000 quotations, allowing Wordsworth to scrape over the line at 1,953. For the 2010 makeover of OED see OED Online.