Reading and readers

The OED is based on its quotations. Throughout its life, these have been supplied partly by the lexicographers themselves, but also by the hundreds of volunteer readers on whom the project has always been crucially dependent. This was particularly the case up to 1879, when all participating in reading texts and excerpting quotations were volunteers.

Henri Lebasque, Jeune Fille Lisant et Vase de Fleurs, c. 1915. Source:

As our page on Initial practice reports, more than one hundred volunteers signed up to read texts for the Dictionary within two years of Trench’s original lectures of 1857. Their names are listed in the many notebooks and documents surviving in the OED archives which detail both the readers themselves and the texts to which they were assigned (for examples see pages on OED1’s compilation, beginning at F. J. Furnivall’s notebook).

When Murray became editor in 1879, he issued an Appeal to encourage another wave of contributors to read texts and supply quotations. ‘A thousand readers are wanted, and confidently asked for,’ he wrote, ‘to complete the work as far as possible within the next three years, so that the Dictionary may proceed upon full and complete materials’ (1st edn, p. 4). One year later he was able to report to the Philological Society that there were now 754 readers.

The participation of external readers seems to have reduced after 1888, however. Volume 1 (combining the previously published sections for A-B) was published in this year, and its Preface lists, in an Appendix, a full schedule of the main readers who had contributed materials for the Dictionary, grouped in five sections according to the number of quotations for which they had been responsible (165,000 down to 1,000), and naming over 300 individuals. (This Appendix is most easily consulted in the reprint of OED Prefaces in Raymond 1987, now available as a downloadable PDF at [accessed July 2019]; bound copies of the first edition of OED do not usually include the original prefatory material.)

Clearly Murray’s staff continued to search out additional quotations and to check existing ones, but the fact that no complete lists of external contributions are published subsequent to this date indicates that much of the basic work had been done (go to Early progress for more information on the rate of accumulation of slips). The supply of new material did not dry up altogether. In 1892 Murray reported to the Philological Society, ‘A good deal of “Reading” has been done during the year, and much of it is still going on…During past year not less than 30,000 quotations were received.’ In the same report he mentions ‘the collections of our 1500 readers’; presumably this refers to all the readers who had contributed to the project at any time (Murray 1892: 275, 277) – a staggeringly large number, nevertheless.

Certainly the lexicographers were able to give comparatively minimal attention to collecting contemporary words after 1890 or so: quotations for the years subsequent to this date tail off steeply (see the page on 20th century in Period coverage) and Murray expresses anxiety in 1892 about keeping up with ‘the literature of the last quarter of the 19th century’ (Murray 1892: 275).

The following pages look at some individual readers, at editorial instructions for readers and at complaints about them, as well as considering more general issues and problems relating to readers and reading for the Dictionary. They cover Burchfield’s Supplement of 1972-86 as well as the first edition of OED.

Volunteer reading for today’s version of OED continues to play an important role. The first-ever revision of OED, underway in Oxford since the late-1990s, has issued a number of appeals to the public and has its own set of readers. The OED website at displays a number of blog-posts reporting their experiences, beginning here: [accessed 19 April 2019]

Last updated on 24 September 2019