The world and the dictionary

The urge to record knowledge, understanding and natural phenomena in a coherent taxonomy has lain behind the compilation of encyclopedias and dictionaries over many centuries, from Isidore’s late 6th-century Etymologiae and its medieval successors through to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772) and subsequent works. The size and scope of the resulting volumes have often elicited from both authors and readers the corresponding view that such reference works faithfully reflect, in some way or other, the world outside them. As the 17th-century educationalist Comenius wrote, ‘Encyclopaedia is the system of all sciences, based on method and laid out like the world itself’.1

The world and the OED

In the case of the OED, the comprehensive list of words is itself hugely impressive. The collection of (nearly) all recorded words in the English language implies an enumeration of all known things or concepts. This effect is enhanced by the enormous number of illustrative quotations (nearly 2.5 million in OED2, published 1989, and over 3 million in OED3, the revision currently in progress), many of them drawn from great works of literature, history and philosophy written between 1150 and the late 20th century. As has often been observed, the quotations give the work the character of a commonplace book stored with knowledge and wisdom, providing access to literary masterpieces which have played a defining role in English-speaking culture.

One of the most significant functions of the quotations in OED, therefore, is the impression they give to the reader that this ‘definitive record of the English language’  – to quote the website strap-line – represents both the world itself, and more particularly the life and culture of the nation (in much the same way as does that other great Victorian undertaking, the Dictionary of National Biography). This is an impression often recorded by users of the OED, whether in the past or more recently.

In 1889, a reviewer of the first volume of the OED (letters A and B) wrote that, as in the Encyclopedia Britannica (ninth edition) and the Dictionary of National Biography (vols 1-17), which he was also reviewing,

everything is to be found here, but one feels that human faculties are inadequate to penetrate the details of so vast a collection.

Reeve 1889: 350

A later reviewer, of the 1933 re-issue of the OED, began his article,

A dictionary, Anatole France has said, is the universe in alphabetical order

Osborn 1933: 7812

while a correspondent to the Oxford University Press (writing about the Shorter OED, the abridgement of OED first published in 1933) thought

the world seems spread before one and the dictionary’s breadth of view seems to be commensurate with reality…here there is no author’s arbitrary handling of the material of life to irk the reader.

Egbert E. Smart, 13 December 19373

An associated way of responding to the OED is quoted in OED3 itself (s.v. entry for O, n.1, updated 2004) as one of the illustrative quotations for the term ‘O.E.D.’ – an engaging example of self-referentiality:

the O.E.D. is the collective unconscious of English speakers, he would say, for all our ideas and feelings are to be found there, in the endless recombinations of our words

 – the quotation comes from the New Yorker magazine of 27 March 1995 (p. 59), where the remark is attributed to the poet James Merrill.4

The title of one of Simon Winchester’s books on the history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything (2003), also exploits the apparent equivalence between the world and the OED, while the belief that the OED is in some way a faithful reflection of English-speaking culture is found in the online Preface to OED3:

Far more than a convenient place to look up words and their origins, the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society. [accessed 20 April 2018]

The significant characteristic of all these remarks or phrases is the unproblematic congruence they assume between the OED and the outside world – or with the English language in its uncensored, unselected entirety.


A useful counterview was put by two feminist writers on language in 1985:

A Dictionary is a word-book which collects somebody’s words into somebody’s book. Whose words are collected, how they are collected, and who collects them all influence what kind of book a given dictionary turns out to be and, in turn, whose purpose it can best serve.

Kramarae and Treichler 1985: 119

They go on to observe that ‘Women’s invisibility as language-producers is closely bound to the scholarly practices of dictionary producers’ (p. 120).

The choice of which sources to read for quotations, the methods of collection and of analysis, and the choice of which quotations to reproduce in the final version of the Dictionary, are all matters on which OED’s policy and practice have varied considerably over its decades of compilation. They are also matters on which the lexicographers have expended significant amounts of energy, erudition, and thought.

Examining OED’s selection and use of quotations enables, we hope, a fuller understanding of the ways in which this great work represents the English lexicon and ‘documents the continuing development of our society’.

Last updated on 8 October 2019


  1. Quoted as an epigraph by Hüllen (1999) from Comenius, Lexicon Reale Pansophium. The view that the book reflects the world applies both to wordbooks ordered topically and to those ordered alphabetically.
  2. We have been unable to trace the source of the quotation from Anatole France (we thank Elizabeth Knowles of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for her suggestions).
  3. OED archives, OED REVISION BOX 1936-41.
  4. Many thanks to Robert C. Ross for drawing our attention to this quotation (21 Jan, 2008). Merrill was given W. H. Auden’s copy of the OED, which he in turn passed to the poet J. D. McClatchy; see Auden and the OED. The term O.E.D. was first included in the Dictionary in the third volume of Burchfield’s Supplement, published in 1982.