1930-1989 in OED2

After outline discussion of OED2’s documentation of the period 1930-1989, for which the Supplement editor R. W. Burchfield was largely responsible, this page compares his record with that of OED1’s documentation of 1800-1929. Next, Explanations are considered for OED2’s strikingly poor treatment of 20th-century vocabulary and some typical examples provided. Finally, we give an account of the Character and provenance of OED2 quotations 1930-1989, looking at citation from both individual authors and from newspapers, journals and periodicals.


Chart 20: Total quotations in OED1/2 1930-1989

As Chart 20 shows, the documentation of post-1930 vocabulary in OED2 was very uneven indeed. This is due to the publishing history of the Dictionary rather than to innate characteristics of the source material. 

Almost no new editing was carried out for this so-called second edition of the OED, barring an unidentifiable 5,000 new entries. Otherwise its entire post-1930 content derived from the Second Supplement to OED1 edited by R. W. Burchfield, which had been published in 4 volumes 1972-89 and had itself incorporated most (but not all) of the entries included in the one-volume First Supplement (1933).

Burchfield’s quotation-gathering for this period initially concentrated on the years 1930 to 1960. Reading was much more systematic than for the 1933 Supplement, which had been assembled in haste; from the start Burchfield was determined to do full justice to scientific vocabulary while maintaining OED’s role as ‘a literary instrument’ and extending coverage to ‘The main Commonwealth sources’. After the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, Burchfield extended the scope of his quotation gathering to include far more slang and colloquial vocabulary. See further Character and provenance below and our pages on quotation collection for the First and Second Supplements respectively, 1933 and 1972-8. See also Brewer 2007b chapters 6 and 7.

Nevertheless, the Second Supplement’s documentation of 20th-century words and senses completely failed to match OED1’s documentation of 19th-century vocabulary. This is shown clearly in Chart 35 in the next section.

Comparison with OED1’s documentation of 19th- and early 20th-century vocabulary

Chart 35: Total quotations in OED1/2 1800-1989

We should begin by reminding ourselves that although the data in this chart derives from the electronically searchable OED2 (taken down from the OED Online website in 2010), quotations dated between 1800 and 1928 were almost entirely gathered by the OED1 lexicographers.

As described on 1800-1929 in OED1/2, the more-or-less steady increase in OED1’s quotations from 1800 to 1889, and the subsequent decline to 1919, can be understood as commensurate with the first edition’s collection and editing processes. But it is also reasonable to assume that OED1’s increase in quotations, and in the record of new words and senses (Chart 16), over much of the 19th century did in fact match a genuine increase in the vocabulary of English. One would have expected that increase to have continued, however, not to have fallen off, over the years 1890-1930 – and certainly not over the middle and later years of the 20th century.

Burchfield was well aware of the decline in OED1’s quotation collections over the latter years of work editing and publishing the Dictionary. He tried to some extent to mitigate this with a reading programme for ‘As many literary works of the period 1884-1930 as could be managed in the time available’ (see 1972-86 and Brewer 2007b: 165), but was unable to compensate adequately for the OED1 deficit 1889-1930. The Second Supplement (and hence OED2) did not begin to approach OED1’s documentation of the latter years of the 19thcentury until the 1960s onwards. It never matched OED1’s mass of quotations documenting the years 1870-1889.

As shown elsewhere, identification of new words and senses over a period is often correlated with OED’s total of quotations for that period as a whole. This can be seen – more or less – in Chart 36.

Chart 36: First quotations in OED1/2 1800-1989

Variations in the numbers of quotations for new words and senses in OED2 over 1800-1989 closely follow those for the total number of quotations gathered. The drop in OED2’s record of new words and senses over the 20th century is striking, given the huge social and technological changes over this period which one would expect to have been accompanied by a considerable increase in vocabulary in English.

Explanations for Burchfield’s low documentation of the 20th century

It is certainly possible that Burchfield, his editorial staff, and his volunteer contributors were less productive and efficient than their OED1 equivalents. However, comparisons of this sort are difficult to make owing to the patchy archival evidence for OED1 and the difference in employment conditions for OED1 and the Second Supplement. 

A sufficient explanation for Burchfield’s lower tallies of quotations and of new words or senses lies elsewhere. Burchfield’s brief, in producing the Second Supplement, was to record new words and senses, not existing ones. Thousands of words still in everyday current usage in the 20th century had first been recorded many years or centuries earlier and hence already had OED1 entries, with full documentation of their usage to date – i.e., (in most cases) up to the end of the 19th century. (This has already been mentioned on our page for 1800-1929 in OED1/2; see Burchfield’s additions).

In many cases, Burchfield did not add any new evidence to the Second Supplement for these entries. That meant that when OED1 was merged with his Supplement to create OED2, they remained exactly as Murray and his co-editors had left them – i.e., without post-1928 quotations. 

In consequence, OED2’s attestation and treatment of words already in existence by the time of OED1, and still current in the 1980s – i.e. the bulk of the English lexicon – omits 20th-century quotations for thousands of words current over this century. Its documentation is simply inadequate, and this is what Charts 35 and 36 record.

Various categories of under-treatment can be identified, the first two of which are an important factor in the under-documentation of 20th-century vocabulary represented above:

  1. Entries for words and senses current in 20th-century English but lacking any citations of 20th-century use
  2. Failure to record new, or developed senses for existing OED1 entries 

Examples of these two categories will be readily spotted by anyone turning over the pages of a printed copy of OED2. Some entries exhibit both characteristics: no up-to-date quotations, and no notice of relatively recent new senses – along with definitions which were, by 1989, quaintly phrased or otherwise inappropriate.  A small random selection is given below. Asterisked entries remain unrevised in OED Online at the time of writing, May 2020. 

Entire entries: 

  • banter,‘Wanton nonsense talked in ridicule of a subject or person…’, latest quotation 1880
  • caliphate,* latest quotation 1869
  • democracy, ‘Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In mod. use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege’, latest quotation 1891
  • greed,‘Inordinate or insatiate longing, esp. for wealth; avaricious or covetous desire’, latest quotation 1874
  • housekeeper, latest quotation 1896; definition for sense 4 refers to ‘the woman in control of the female servants of a household’, with no indication that this is not a current sense in 1989
  • prudence, latest quotation 1890

Individual senses: 

  • girl 2a (‘A female child; commonly applied to all young unmarried women’), latest quotation 1894
  • boy n1 (‘1. A male child below the age of puberty. But commonly applied to all lads still at school, as such; and parents or sisters often continue to speak of their grown-up sons or brothers as ‘the boys’), latest quotation 1844
  • dinner* 1a (The chief meal of the day, eaten originally, and still by the majority of people, about the middle of the day (cf. Ger. Mittagsessen), but now, by the professional and fashionable classes, usually in the evening; particularly, a formally arranged meal of various courses; a repast given publicly in honour of some one, or to celebrate some event’), latest quotation 1876
  • slang* n3 1a (‘The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type’), latest quotation 1839
  • Tory* 3a (‘…the name of one of the two great parliamentary and political parties in England, and (at length) in Great Britain’), latest quotation 1895

Another significant defect in OED2 – although one that does not show up in Charts 35 and 36 – was its failure to indicate that much of the vocabulary registered as current in its definitions had ceased to be current by 1989. The definition for Tory (sense 3a) quoted above is a case in point. Hundreds and probably thousands of other examples could also be cited, e.g., over a small alphabet range, magiric, magirist, magism, maguase, magnetiferous, maidenism, all subsequently identified as obsolete in the OED3 revision.

Character and provenance of OED2 quotations 1930-1989

Burchfield’s initial reading programme greatly expanded over the 1960s. As before, he sought to document ‘the main literary works of the period, ‘a selection of important scientific and technical works’, ‘runs of literary, scientific, and technical periodicals, 1930-1960’, current newspapers and ‘the main Commonwealth sources’, but he also made much wider forays into slang and colloquial vocabulary. Our page on Burchfield’s quotation collection for the Second Supplement is in preparation (1972-1986) and meanwhile accounts can be found in Brewer 2007b (chapters 6-7) and Gilliver 2016.

Given the limited search tools for analysing large quantities of quotations on the OED website prior to 2010, and the disappearance of OED2 from the OED Online website after that date, it has never been possible to make a proper study of the OED2 record 1930-1989. 

Burchfield himself published a number of articles describing his work. Using these as a guide, Brewer 2007b (chapters 6-7) was able to demonstrate his fondness for a particular literary canon – James Joyce, Auden, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence – combined with continued neglect of female literary writers. Burchfield’s most quoted women writers were the thriller writers Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers; see our page on most quoted 20th-century fe/male sources in the OED. However, no individual authors were documented in anything like the quantities amassed for OED1 (see Top sources). Joyce appears to have had the highest total at around 1,800 quotations, while the highest quoted woman, Burchfield’s compatriot Ngaio Marsh, was cited around 480 times and other female authors far less. In this respect Burchfield was carrying forward what he characterised as OED’s role as a ‘literary instrument’ (discussed in our section on Literary sources). We can glean more insight into Burchfield’s ‘canon’ from analysis of today’s OED Online reported on the next page, 1930 onwards in OED3; see Most quoted sources.

EOED’s pre-2010 research had begun the process of investigating the treatment of individual literary authors in Burchfield’s Supplement, with a view to comparing quotation from female with male authors. For interest, Chart 41 below reports the results we came up with before OED2 was removed from public consultation, our initial choice of authors merely exploratory at that early stage. Note that a now unascertainable number of these quotations would have been quoted from pre-1930 publications – in particular Ulysses (1922), along with most of Lawrence’s work as well as much of Eliot’s. Dates assigned to the authors in Chart 41 refer to the date-span of the quotations concerned, not to the life-span of the respective authors.

Chart 41: Quotation totals for selected individual 20th-century literary authors in OED2

By contrast, Burchfield’s use of journals and periodicals to document post-1930 vocabulary looks likely to have been far more intensive. This is an area for which EOED has no independent evidence dating from pre-2010 searches of OED2. However, Willinsky’s table of top periodicals in the Supplement suggests that Burchfield’s use of these sources was an early stage of the huge reliance on such sources which now characterises OED3’s searches for quotations.

Willinsky’s evidence is reproduced below. Note that the data to which Willinsky had access seems not always to have been reliable (see note on Willinsky in Sources of OED data), while – as in Chart 41 above, but to a greater extent – the dates of publication of the periodicals listed indicate that many of the quotation totals reported will be for dates before as well as after 1930. It is certainly the case that Burchfield added many pre-20th-century quotations to the Supplement (around 350 for Jane Austen, for example: see Brewer 2015a, downloadable from our Library page), but impossible to know exactly how many and which they were.

Willinsky’s Table of most quoted newspapers, journals and periodicals cited in Burchfield’s Supplement (1972-86)
Source: John Willinsky, Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994), p. 217

Burchfield was innovative not just in his increased reliance on multiple- as opposed to single-authored sources. He greatly increased the OED’s representation of varieties of English beyond the UK and US (albeit pursuing inconsistent policies in this respect). He broke new ground in his inclusion of quotations, along with more explicit definitions, for obscene and sexual vocabulary previously excluded from the Dictionary, while opening up the OED to colloquial vocabulary more generally. He also added huge numbers of scientific terms, many of them derived from journal articles, and put the documentation of scientific vocabulary on a new footing by appointing the first specialist editor in science (Alan Hughes).

See further Burchfield’s Supplement: editorial policy and practice

Last updated on 3 July 2020