Two sets of instructions to readers were issued for the first edition of OED. The Philological Society’s Proposal in 1859 set out ‘Rules and Directions for Collectors’ which asked them to read through their designated books, extracting from them ‘all the WORDS, PHRASES, IDIOMS and VARIETIES OF FORM…that are now obsolete, and all not occurring in your Bases of Comparison’; it explained that this particular rule would help them to identify the first and last usages for every word treated.1 More specifically, the Proposal directed readers to seek out passages particularly apt for the Dictionary because they revealed the meanings and connotations of words, whether in the past or present, and passages which aided discrimination of meaning between different words.

When Murray became editor in 1879 he issued a new set Directions to readers. In part, these repeated the earlier ones, but differed in two important respects: first, Murray did away with the ‘Bases of Comparison’, which he felt had caused a good deal of trouble (described at Issues and problems); secondly, he specifically stressed the importance of collecting ordinary as well as unusual words.

In both cases, readers were asked to write out the quotations on slips of paper (half sheets of notepaper; see Proposal, p. 10), and include all relevant information – author, edition, date of publication, etc.

The completed slips were to be sent to the lexicographers where they were sorted and further digested, supplemented and reorganized in the process of editing. This process is fascinatingly described by Onions in The Periodical 1928, p. 15.

1933 Supplement

Craigie and Onions’s 1933 Supplement did not establish a full reading programme in the way that OED1 had done earlier, since its purpose was so limited: to bring the Dictionary up to date for words and meanings that had appeared since the successive parts had begun to be published in 1884. Many outside readers had already sent in masses of slips recording such revisions and additions, and these had been stored systematically (and of course supplemented by the lexicographers themselves) by at least 1908 and probably from much earlier. In and around 1925 this material was sorted through once again in preparation for the job of editing, which got underway seriously in 1928. (Documentation on this phase of the Dictionary is preserved in the OED archives, and its story is told in chapters 1 and 2 of Brewer 2007b.)

Nevertheless, like Murray before them, the editors did make appeals for what they called desiderata – words for which further examples were required in good quality print sources to supplement information that they already had – which they published in The Periodical. The first list, which appeared in the issue of October 1928, included not only contemporary items of vocabulary like A.B.C. shop (example wanted from before 1897), ace, i.e. ‘airman’ (before 1918), active list (before 1927), airman (before 1910), but also other terms not necessarily associated with the early part of the 20th century, such as Aberdeen terrier (before 1880), agin (the government etc.) (before 1904), alley-way (before 1882). As in the past, respondents were asked to fill in the information on slips of paper and send them in to the Dictionary.

Burchfield’s Supplement

By contrast with the previous Supplement (whose results were subsumed into his own), Burchfield established substantial reading programmes to cover all kinds of printed language. Burchfield’s brief was limited however as regards the period of time his portion of the Dictionary was to cover, a limitation reflected in the directions given to the readers. As he wrote in 1973, ‘The instruction we gave them [the readers] was quite simple: copy out a quotation for any word, sense, or phrase occurring in the source that is not already adequately dealt with in the O.E.D. or its Supplement (1933)’ (Burchfield 1973: 99).

Many readers nevertheless continued to send in revisions and additions to OED1’s treatment of earlier vocabulary; these were filed away and are now being made use of for the current revision of the Dictionary which began in the 1990s (OED3).

Burchfield also published many lists of desiderata, inviting the public to search for antedatings to specific items of vocabulary – it was to one of these that Marghanita Laski responded in 1958.

OED2 onwards

This tradition of appealing to the public for help with quotations was revived by one of OED2’s editors, John Simpson, in 1986. A facsimile of his document can be seen on the OED Online website here, while more recent appeals – notably via the BBC television programme Balderdash & Piffle, are described by OED here (both pages accessed 29 August 2019).

A current set of Appeals to the public has been underway since 2012 and has a section of the OED website specifically devoted to it, titled Contribute to our latest appeals (accessed 4 August 2020).

Last updated on 4 August 2020


  1. See 1859 Proposal pp. 8-11, and for the ‘Bases of Comparison’ see Initial practice.