This page begins with a brief note on newspapers in today’s OED Online compared with previous versions. It continues with a discussion of the standard objections to their use as evidence for the history of the language, compared with the lexicographical view that newspapers furnish ‘the most valuable of current instances – they show how the language grows – they make visible to us the actual steps which for earlier stages we must reconstruct by inference’.
Current treatment of newspapers as quotation sources in the OED
Newspapers have shot into prominence as major quotation sources in the OED3 revision: see pages on Top sources in OED3 and (in the Period coverage section) on 1800-1929 in OED3 and 1930 onwards in OED3. The Times (i.e. the London publication) now tops the list of 1,000 most quoted sources in the OED, with 43,348 quotations as of August 2020.
The total of quotations from The Times in OED1 (completed 1928) was 4,085, to which a further 14,832 were added in the Second Supplement (1972-86) along with a further 616 in OED2 (1989). This makes a total of around 19,500 quotations in all from The Times before work on revising OED2 began (all figures quoted from Willinsky 1994).1 In turn, that means that OED3 must have added nearly 24,000 new quotations from the same publication over the last twenty years.
Objections to newspaper quotations in OED1; contrasting views of lexicographers
They were originally a contentious source in the Dictionary. Negotiating with the Philological Society in 1877 over OUP’s adoption of the new Dictionary, the University Delegates had queried their use, referring to their authors disdainfully as ‘penny-a-liner’s.2
Quotations from newspapers regularly elicited objections from reviewers of the Dictionary, with their speed of production and consumption being a particular concern. Henry Reeve’s review of the first volume (A-B) referred to newspapers as ‘the trifles and ephemeral productions of the hour‘ (1889), while C. W. Brodribb, summing up the achievement of the completed Dictionary for the TLS in 1928, seemed glad that newspaper quotations were as little in evidence as they were, noting that ‘The mass of [the Dictionary] was got together before the newly literate received their charter to treat the language as they pleased in hourly print‘.
By contrast, lexicographers were well aware of the potential value of newspapers as evidence of general language usage. As early as 1855, the lexicographer Hyde Clarke identified their advantages over literary sources, in particular their early witness to developments in oral usage which were destined to become established in written use too.
There is no evidence that James Murray had read Hyde Clarke’s work, but he would have warmly agreed. In his presidential address to the Philological Society in 1884 he reported on the reception of the Dictionary’s first instalment (A-ant), objecting to the snobbery with which some of its content had been greeted. As he described, ‘Considerable indignation has been expended on quotations from modern newspapers’, although those of two centuries or so ago, ‘which age has since hallowed’, had escaped criticism. ‘Personally,’ he continued, ‘I think this criticism by far the silliest that the Dictionary has elicited’ (see full extract below).
Many years ahead of his time, he often insisted on the positive value of such sources: ‘To the philologist & historian of language – newspaper quotations are the most valuable of current instances – they show how the language grows – they make visible to us the actual steps which for earlier stages we must reconstruct by inference’. Murray himself ‘never read the leaders of the daily papers without finding some word worth extracting,’ and he utterly repudiated the stigma attached to the claimed ‘atrocities of newspaper English’.3
His fellow editors thought the same. Henry Bradley (1904: 239) later defended the ‘better forms’ of ‘the much-decried “newspaper English”’ in his book on language, while C. T. Onions (1928b: 5) described ‘the apparently random clippings of a Furnivall’ – i.e. his combing through newspapers for quotations – as ‘of inestimable value’. F. J. Furnivall’s heroic efforts in this respect are briefly described in our page on Individual readers.
But criticism of newspaper usage was widely shared, including by other OUP lexicographers of English such as the Fowler brothers. It was despair over the solecisms of ‘journalists and amateur writers’ that pricked H. W. and F. G. Fowler into writing their first book on usage The King’s English (1906), which established their reputation and their longstanding relationship with the Press, paving the way both for H. W.’s editing of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1909), which became one OUP’s best-selling publications, and for the equally famous Modern English Usage (1924).4 The correspondence between H. W. Fowler and OUP over the preparation of The King’s English is full of exclamations of disgust at journalistic locutions, which the OUP Secretary Charles Cannan called ‘a heap of filth of various degrees of abomination’, characterised by ‘blunder’, ‘cacophony’, ‘verbiage’, ‘false pathos’ and ‘avoidable dulness’; see further Brewer 2008a.5 Such horror (e.g., of ‘newspaper slip-slop’, as expressed by a protestor writing in Notes & Queries in 1857) was certainly not confined to the linguistically un- (or ill-) informed or the pedantic and intolerant.6
Extract from Murray’s presidential address to the London Philological Society of 1884 (Murray 1884b: 524-6)
Last updated on 9 September 2021
- See Willinsky 1994: 219 (Table 10.3), also our note on Willinsky in Sources of OED data.
- As reported to the then-prospective editor James Murray by Henry Sweet, 29 June 1877 (Murray papers); see also note 3. below.
- J. Murray to B. Price (‘in answer to request from the Delegates not to use newspaper quotations’), Murray Papers, Box 5, 9 June 1882; Murray (1880-1a: 129). A fuller extract from this letter is quoted in Gilliver (2016): 143-44.
- For more on the Concise see Brewer 2015c.
- Letters from Fowler to Cannan, Dec 19 1904, OED archives, Misc/370/3, and from Cannan to Fowler, 31 Jan 05, OUP archives, OUPA/Misc/370/10.
- Notes & Queries, 21 Feb. 1857. The writer’s point was later contested in F. Hall (1877): 166-72 – i.e. by the OED’s own Fitzedward Hall.