18th-century Leverhulme study

Portrait of a Woman [Madame Roland] (c. 1787) by Adelaide Labille-Guiard. Source: Wikipedia. Location: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper, France

The 18th century, particularly the earlier decades, was under-read for the first edition of the OED and the results of this comparative neglect can still be seen in the present-day OED’s coverage of this period (see EOED pages on 1700-1799 in Period coverage). Unsurprisingly, more extensive reading in 18th-century sources turns up interesting new material which should have the effect of significantly changing OED’s record of this period of the language.

The pages in this section, compiled in 2009, review selected 18th-century authors and texts, many of them un-read by OED readers and editors, to see the extent to which they provide evidence of language usage significantly supplementing that which had already been recorded in OED. Since women writers were particularly neglected by the original OED editors, these were chosen as the object of study. Both types of source – 18th-century, and female-authored sources – are also being specially re-read by today’s OED editors in their work on the Third Edition of the Dictionary, as described in our page on OED3 quotation sources.

Sequences of pages on Jean Adam, Penelope Aubin, and Anna Seward begin with introductions to the respective writers and continue with comment on their language and its treatment in OED, listing samples of usages unrecorded or under-recorded in the Dictionary.

More general discussion can be found in pages on Women’s distinctive vocabulary (including Distaff and kitchen and Courtship and marriage), while the enormous discrepancy between quotations for eighteenth-century male and female authors in the OED is illustrated with some examples and comment at Men and women compared. The section starts with a note on the project’s Reading and recording conventions.


Research for these pages was funded over 2009 by the Leverhulme Trust, whose support is gratefully acknowledged, and the material later used as the basis for the article “‘Happy Copiousness’? OED’s Recording of Female Authors of the Eighteenth Century”, Review of English Studies 63 (2012): 86-117. Subsequent related research on Jane Austen (briefly discussed at EOED pages Distaff and kitchen and Courtship and marriage) was published as “‘That Reliance on the Ordinary’: Jane Austen and the Oxford English Dictionary“, Review of English Studies (2015): 744–765. Both articles can be read via the EOED Library.

See in addition Charlotte Brewer, ‘”Goose-quill or Gander’s”? Female writers in Johnson’s Dictionary’, in Freya Johnston and Lynda Mugglestone (eds.), Samuel Johnson: The Arc of the Pendulum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 120-39. This book contribution (also downloadable via our Library page, with accompanying table) discusses a related point, namely the tiny number of quotations from female authors in Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755 – fewer than thirty, it appears, from a total of around 114,000 quotations altogether.

Last updated on 14 July 2020