1930 onwards in OED3

This page begins with an Outline picture of the OED3 revision’s changes to the post-1929 OED2 record after the first 20 years or so of revision. Comparison with earlier periods shows that the huge quantities of new quotations added by OED3 to illustrate 20th- and 21st-century vocabulary far outstrip those for previous centuries.

It is also clear that the character and provenance of quotations now being collected for the Dictionary has decisively changed. As demonstrated in our earlier pages on Period coverage, the vast banks of citations from individual ‘great writers’ inherited from OED1 have continued to dominate the pre-1930 record in today’s OED Online as in the parent Dictionary. Under Most quoted sources for the post-1929 years, we show that OED3 has now moved away from such heavy documentation of Individually-authored sources – although the revision still shows a strange preference for citing from the outdated literary and cultural canon of writers preferred by the Supplement editor Burchfield. In general, however, OED3 is concentrating its energies on electronic searching of the large databases for Multi-authored sources – newspapers, journals and periodicals – that have become available in recent years.  


Chart 21 below displays the total number of quotations over 1930-2009 recorded in OED Online (searched December 2018) in comparison with the equivalent totals for OED2, the latter data deriving from searches of the OED2 database before it was removed from public consultation in 2010. As always, users of OED Online must remember that this version of the Dictionary lumps together revised with unrevised entries when its database is searched: care should be taken in drawing inferences from the results.

Chart 21: Total quotations in OED2 & OED Online (Dec 2018) 1930-2009

The OED2 line stops at 1989, the date this 20-volume print version of the Dictionary was published. OED Online’s quotations thereafter derive from the three volumes of Additions published in the 1990s and (much more significantly) the entirely new Third Edition published online from 2000 onwards. The OED Online line continues up to the last complete decade (2000-2009) treated at the time of collecting the data in December 2018. For explanation of these latter stages of the Dictionary see pages under OED editions.

Broadly speaking the OED Online quotation totals from 1930 onwards record a gradual rise in the documentation of vocabulary in English over the course of the 20th century. In particular, the revisers have put huge effort into the post-1989 period where they were breaking new ground. However, the revision has yet to correct the striking dips in OED2’s equivalent documentation over 1940-1949 and 1980-89.  We can see more clearly where the revision energy has been concentrated if we hive off the totals for additional quotations per decade in OED Online and represent them independently. 

Chart 40 below shows the distribution of these additional OED3 quotations decade by decade from 1930 onwards. Both charts show how closely the OED3 revision is following the dips and peaks in OED2’s original collection of quotations up to 1989.

As with such correspondences between OED2 and OED3 over previous periods (see preceding pages under Period coverage), the question arises whether the OED3 revision is taking a sufficiently independent stance from previous versions of the Dictionary. Does this mirroring of patterns of documentation between OED2 and OED Online tell us about variations in the history of the language, or about the lexicography employed to record that history? 

Chart 40: Total ADDITIONAL quotations in OED3 (Dec 2018) 1930-2009

We cannot identify the new quotations up to 1989 with electronic searches but it is reasonable to assume that in the main they derive from the periodicals, journals and newspapers which have shot into prominence in OED Online’s current list of most quoted sources.  See Most quoted sources below.

Comparison with earlier periods

To contextualize the new quotation figures for the 20th century and beyond it is helpful to compare them with those of the 19th century. Chart 37 takes the record back to the 19th century, discussed at 1800-1929 in OED3

Chart 37: Total quotations in OED2 & OED Online (Dec 2018) 1800-2009

The comparison points up the current unevenness of OED’s representation of the period post-1889. The dips that characterised OED1 and OED2’s record remain in that of OED Online, albeit less deep than in the previous versions. Overall, however, it is clear while OED1’s gathering of quotations peaked over the 19th century, OED3’s has peaked over the 20th century. This can be seen in Chart 38, which compares OED2’s documentation of successive post-1500 centuries with that of OED Online (as of December 2018)

Chart 38: Total quotations in OED1/2 and OED Online (Dec 2018) 1500-1999 by century

Chart 39 displays OED3’s totals more clearly since it presents the net increase in quotation totals as of December 2018: i.e., the difference between the OED2 and OED Online totals at this date.

Chart 39: Total ADDITIONAL quotations in OED3 (Dec 2018) 1500-1999

The disparities between the totals of quotations newly gathered per century is marked. The OED3 revision has amassed huge numbers for the 20th century: 549,954 altogether as of December 2018, over twice as many as the 235,728 quotations for 1800-1899 it had added to the OED2 record at the same stage.

Most quoted sources

As discussed elsewhere on EOED, e.g. Top sources and 1800-1929 in OED3, the OED3 revision is adding significant quantities of new quotations to the Dictionary from multi-authored newspapers, journals, periodicals. By contrast, it has departed altogether from OED’s earlier practice of quoting in large numbers from individually authored sources, unless from reference books providing a readily available source of specialist vocabulary (e.g. single-authored dictionaries).

Nowhere is this having more impact than in OED3’s documentation of the 20th and 21st centuries. No 20c author appears in the first 100 of OED Online’s list of ‘top 1,000 sources’ today. This is in stark contrast to the documentation for previous periods, all of which are represented by individual authors in this top section of the list: Chaucer, Langland, Gower and others for the pre-1500 period; Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, Bacon and others over 1500-1699; Milton, Dryden, Pope, Defoe and others over 1600-1799, Cowper, Johnson, Steele, Richardson over 1700-1799, and Scott, Dickens, Carlyle, Tennyson and others over 1800-1929.1

Individually authored sources

As of June 2020, OED Online’s entire list of top 1,000 authors and works quoted in the OED contains just 46 post-1929 authors, so few that it is feasible to reproduce their names and details in a single table as below (see preceding paragraph for comparison with previous periods). As always, we must remember that OED Online does not permit distinction between old and new entries on its database and it is impossible to work out from the website which of these quotations was added in earlier versions of the Dictionary and which by the OED3 revision – unless by checking each quotation individually, not feasible when dealing with large numbers of results. However, as explained below, we can make an educated guess that this favouring of a culturally specific group of individuals derives from Burchfield’s Second Supplement, not from OED3’s new lexicography – though surprisingly, it emerges that OED3 is nevertheless continuing to expand representation of some of these individuals in the revised OED (Charts 42 and 43).

Individual post-1929 authors in OED Online’s list of ‘top 1,000 authors and works quoted in the OED’, June 2020
OEDO rankingAuthorLife-spanQuotationsPrincipal genreGenderOutside British Isles
104Rudyard Kipling1865–19363130NovelistM
142James Joyce1882–19412464NovelistM
151George Bernard Shaw1856–19502334PlaywrightM
169D. H. Lawrence1885–19302225NovelistM
220P. G. Wodehouse1881–19751843NovelistM
274Aldous Huxley1894–19631535NovelistM
335H. G. Wells1866–19461327NovelistM
445John Buchan1875–19401034NovelistM
466William Faulkner1897–1962996NovelistMUS
519John A. Thomson1861–1933906Popular biologistM
522John Galsworthy1867–1933904NovelistM
561Graham Greene1904–1991856NovelistM
581Arthur Conan Doyle1859–1930825NovelistM
605Dylan Thomas1914–1953797PoetM
629W. H. Auden1907–1973778PoetM
657T. S. Eliot1888–1965745PoetM
683Ezra Pound1885–1972719PoetM
705Julian Huxley1887–1975689Zoologist and philosopherM
711Eric Partridge1894–1979684Slang lexicographerM
712W. Somerset Maugham1874–1965684NovelistM
718Sinclair Lewis1885–1951679NovelistMUS
735Virginia Woolf1882–1941661NovelistF
737Sidney Baker1912–1976658Slang lexicographerM
757Dorothy L. Sayers1893–1957637Detective novelistF
770Arthur Koestler1905–1983630NovelistM
781Evelyn Waugh1903–1966622NovelistM
785‘George Orwell’1903–1950618NovelistM
800Elizabeth Bowen1899–1973607NovelistF
816Lester V. Berrey1907-595Slang lexicographerMUS
823C. Day Lewis1904–1972590PoetM
829‘Patrick O'Brian’1914–2000586NovelistM
834Walter de la Mare1873–1956583PoetM
838Arnold Bennett1867–1931578NovelistM
844J. B. Priestley1894–1984577PlaywrightM
864John Masefield1878–1967563NovelistM
869Winston Churchill1874–1965561PoliticianM
891Roy Campbell1901–1957548PoetM
895‘Nevil Shute’1899–1960546NovelistMAustralia
914W. B. Yeats1865–1939536PoetM
937Hall Caine1853–1931526NovelistM
941Edmund Blunden1896–1974523PoetM
944Rose Macaulay1881–1958521NovelistF
973Agatha Christie1890–1976505Detective novelistF
979Robert Bridges1844–1930504PoetM
997Ngaio Marsh1895–1982493Detective novelistFNZ
998T. E. Lawrence1888–1935492Man of lettersM

Click on the arrows to the right of the column headings to change the criteria by which the content of the table is displayed. The number of results shown (46 in total) can be varied by using the tool at top left.  

Almost all the 46 authors included in OED Online’s ‘top 1,000’ list are literary. Of these, an appreciable proportion are at the higher end of the literary spectrum (Joyce, Auden, Pound, Woolf etc), though a handful are less so (e.g. Christie, Shute). Just over half the 46 are novelists (27), ten are poets, three are lexicographers of slang and quoted mainly to instance such vocabulary, two are playwrights, while the remaining four are more various – a man of letters (T. E. Lawrence), a ‘literary’ politician or perhaps historian (Churchill), and two rather different writers on science, Huxley and Thomson. (Many of these authors wrote in genres other than the ones here identified as characterising their principal works). 

Only five of the 46 – Woolf, Marsh, Christie, Sayers, Bowen – are female (for OED’s treatment of Woolf, see Brewer 2009d). Three of these are detective novelists. Only five of the 46 lived and wrote outside the UK. None were born after 1914.

It should go without saying that this choice of authors reflects lexicographical and cultural values now long out-dated: the belief that literary writing should be prioritised in selecting quotations to illustrate the history and development of the language, the assumption that women rarely qualify as literary artists or bear useful witness to the linguistic record, the focus on Anglo-centric writers representing a particular literary tradition. Although many of the individual quotations concerned may have been chosen by the lexicographers as particularly apt, typical, or singular examples of the use of a word, the cultural homogeneity of these sources reflects a specific ideology, consciously recognised or not, which would not now be accepted by linguists as forming the basis for the study of vocabulary in English – nor, indeed, by literary critics and/or historians as forming the basis for the study of literature in English.

Notwithstanding the traditionalism inherent in this documentation of individual writers, the line-up of top sources indicates a shift from the lexicographical preferences and practices of OED1. Novelists are quoted more intensively than poets, while the huge quantities of quotations from historians, philosophers, and theologians which characterised the parent Dictionary are altogether absent.  

As noted above, the OED website does not allow us to identify which of these quotations derives from Burchfield’s Supplement of 1972-1986 and which have been more recently added in the OED3 revision. However, on the basis of sample checking of the entries in which these quotations occur, it seems safe to say that all of these authors were already quoted in significant numbers in OED2. The literary canon they suggest is in accordance with surviving reading lists for the 1972-86 Supplement (which supplied the post-1929 content of OED2) and with Burchfield’s own published views.2 

Now that it is well established in linguistic and lexicographical practice that descriptions of the language should be based on a generically balanced range of evidence, we would expect the OED3 lexicographers to have turned away from the special favouring of literary sources, especially linguistically eccentric ones like Joyce, and to have made significant attempts to redress the male/female imbalance (as well as other sorts of imbalances indicated by the choice of sources in the table). But a notable feature of the post-2000 OED3 revision has been continued citation from this outdated literary and cultural canon, though in relatively small amounts compared with OED1. This is shown in Chart 42 below, where we list the new totals for those authors previously researched by EOED (see Chart 41) who are now in the ‘top 1,000’ list (as of June 2020). 

Chart 42: Quotation totals for individual authors in OED Online’s ‘top 1,000’ list post-1929 compared with OED2 equivalents where known (June 2020)

Chart 43 displays the increase or decrease between OED2 and OED Online (June 2020) for the same group of authors:

Chart 43: OED3’s changes to OED2 quotation totals, where known, for post-1929 ‘top 1,000’ authors (June 2020)

Obviously this is a tiny sample. However, it illustrates that the OED3 lexicographers have demonstrated the same interest in expanding the record for 20th-century male canonical writers – according to outdated criteria – as seen for previous periods, while continuing to under-quote from female authors of comparable standing. See similar evidence in our discussion of Top sources (Chart 28) and in Men and women compared. OED3’s surprising record of vocabulary from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry (archaic and dictionary-derived) is reviewed in Brewer 2019(b).

Multi-authored sources

For the purposes of extremely cautious comparison, the table below reports the first 50 post-1929 sources on OED Online’s ‘top 1,000’ list, as of the June 2020 update, which are not by individual authors.

A number of caveats should be registered. First, as with all OED Online data, these findings represent an undifferentiable mixture of old and new scholarship. Secondly, the quotation figures provided by the OED Online list cover the whole period of publication of the source from which they are taken, which in most cases is well before 1930. Unfortunately, the search tools on the OED website do not permit reliable searches of these titles by date.3 Finally, our attempt to characterise each publication by subject matter is evidently generalised and imperfect.   

Nevertheless, the contrast with the table above is striking. These multi-authored sources are being quoted in the OED3 revision to date in far greater numbers than individual authors; they include slightly more non-UK (albeit only North American) sources; they indicate a particular wish, on the part of the OED3 revisers, to record specialist vocabulary in the sciences – possibly more than to record specialist vocabulary relating to the arts and social sciences. Inferentially, male contributors to these publications, and hence to the OED’s record, will by far outnumber female ones, while the register of language most evidenced in such sources will be dominated by formal written English. Regional varieties of English and of informal language, including social media, will be barely if at all represented. 

It may well be that the OED3 revisers are recording a profusion of vocabulary from such alternative provenances, registers and styles of English, extracting the relevant quotational evidence from a wide variety of individual sources which do not show up in their ‘top 1,000’ list. But until today’s OED gives us more information about its editorial policies and practices – or greatly improves the search tools on its website – it is impossible to know. 

First 50 multi-authored sources covering the post-1929 period: from the list of ‘top 1,000 authors and works’ on OED Online (June 2020)
OEDO  ranking TitlePublication datesQuotationsOutside British IslesSubject matter
4Philosophical Transactions1665–15894Science
5Encyclopaedia Britannica1768–14549Encyclopaedia
7New York Times1857–13749USNewspaper
9Daily Telegraph1855–12102Newspaper
13Daily News1846–9922Newspaper
19Blackwood's Magazine1817–19808301Cultural
25Washington Post1877–7045USNewspaper
26Harper's Magazine1850–6949Cultural
28Acts of Parliament1266–6747Legal
30London Gazette1666–6683Reference
34New Yorker1925–6131USCultural
35Scientific American1845–5954USScience
40New Scientist1956–5461Science
59Times Literary Supplement1902–4658Literary
83Annual Register1758–3696Reference
88Proceedings of the Royal Society1830–3552Science
109Century Magazine1881–3026USCultural
110British Medical Journal1857–3014Medical
111American Naturalist1867–3008USScience
114Atlantic Monthly1857–2972USCultural
118American Speech1925–2893USLanguage
125Chicago Tribune1847–2641USNewspaper
127Glasgow Herald1805–2632Newspaper
129Chambers's Journal1854–19562627Cultural
146Financial Times1888–2413Newspaper
147Globe and Mail1844–2409CanadaNewspaper
149Daily Mail1896–2374Newspaper
150New York Review of Books1963–2345USCultural
159Quarterly Review1809–19672275Cultural
164Los Angeles Times1881–2256USNewspaper
178Sunday Times1822–2177Newspaper
181Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1915–2147USScience
182Contemporary Review1866–2142Cultural
184Baltimore Sun1837–2129USNewspaper
192North American Review1815–2068USCultural
198Journal of the Chemical Society1862–19651992Science

Last updated on 10 September 2020


  1. See, respectively, EOED pages on 1150-1499 in OED3, 1500-1699-in OED3, 1700-1799 in OED3, 1800-1929 in OED3.
  2. See the discussion on the Character and provenance of quotations in Burchfield’s Supplement on the previous page). In the case of pre-1930 quotations from these authors, many will also have been added by Burchfield.
  3. Searches for ‘The Times’, for example, yield results from many other publications with Times in their title – Los Angeles Times, Musical Times, etc.