Complaints (OED1 and Supplement)

Despite its abundant praise for its devoted volunteer readers (see our page on Individuals for examples), the OED has always had problems as well as successes with contributors – or would-be contributors.

In 1860, the first editor Herbert Coleridge wrote a letter to Dean Trench which made a series of decidedly acid observations on the volunteer readers. The number of UK contributors was by then 147, of whom 43 had completed their work and signed off. 15 of those remaining were ‘hopeless’ – i.e. they had offered help but had failed to deliver, ‘remaining deaf to all applications made to them on the subject’ – and this left 89 ‘actually operative hands’, which Coleridge divided into three classes. Class 1 (30 in all),

consists of none but first-rate contributors, who do all they do conscientiously and well, and leave nothing to be desired in any respect. These men work with a thorough and intelligent appreciation of the nature of the scheme, and constitute its main support, and to their untiring efforts and labour of love will be due in a great measure such success as we may achieve.

Coleridge 1860

Class 2 contained ‘fifteen more of inferior merit;’ but the largest of the three, Class 3, with 44 members, constituted ‘all those who have not as yet sent in any work’ – and whose merit it was consequently impossible to judge (Coleridge 1860).

Unsatisfactory as this sounds, Coleridge tells us (p. 74) that the new Dictionary was still faring better than its German counterpart under the Grimm brothers, who confessed in their preface that ‘out of eighty-three contributors…only six could be considered as satisfactory, and that only one of these six…had entirely come up to their beau ideal of a contributor’.

The same complaints recur throughout the compilation of the Dictionary. For instance, an article by ‘Curiosus’ in Notes & Queries (1880) reports what must be the lexicographers’ own account of readers:

Readers may be divided into four classes: the good, the bad, the indifferent, and the dishonourable….The indifferent predominate: many do not seem to be able to grasp the idea of what an English dictionary should be. Some appear to assume that it is only to be a storehouse of rare and obsolete terms…on the other hand, some seem to think that an English dictionary should contain every word, no matter of what language, which appears in any English author [and an example is given of one reader who sent in 1,000 quotations from a work, 998 of which were ‘pure Arabic terms’].

‘Curiosus’ (1880: 262, col 2)

When Burchfield took up editorship of the Supplement in 1957, he had a different set of problems. He had hoped to recruit men and women of letters, but found to his disappointment that ‘one by one they declined an invitation to read, or undertook the reading assigned to them in such a leisurely fashion that it would have been A.D. 2000 before the Supplement could appear’. The problem was that ‘many of the people best fitted to do the readings could not be persuaded to accept any task by a definite date because of more lucrative work easily obtainable elsewhere’.1

One of the two surviving editors of the first edition, Onions, had warned him that professional scholars should be consulted only when all other sources have failed: ‘ “They are admirable if asked to criticise a provisional entry, hopeless if asked to do all the work” ‘ (Burchfield 1989: 6). By 1962, Burchfield had found to his disappointment that this was indeed the case: ‘with one or two exceptions university teachers of English have not come forward to help at the reading stage’; though he hoped that he would ‘be able to call on their advice and criticism on particular points as entries are being assembled’.2

The exceptions, however, were distinguished and their production of slips more numerous than this testy account indicates. Among others, Emrys Jones, Douglas Gray, Derek Brewer, Elsie Duncan-Jones, E. G. Stanley, and M. B. Parkes, all contributed copiously to Burchfield’s quotation files and are named in the various prefaces to the volumes as they appeared, as well as in Burchfield’s later T. S. Eliot lectures on his early years as Supplement editor (Burchfield 1989: 8).

Last updated on 8 October 2019


  1. 1962 report in OUP/Box OP1713/PB/ED/012870 (OED archives).
  2. Report cited in note above.