Early History of the Oxford English Dictionary

Several times per week, I am looking at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) for word origins or synonyms or a variety of other searches. Yet, until recently, I had not thought much about this fabulous resource’s beginnings.

It took from 1857 when members of the Philosophical Society of London called for a more “complete” dictionary of the English language to 1879, when an agreement with the Oxford University Press was agreed upon, to begin work on a New English Dictionary, as it was to be called at the time. One of the key people who initiated the idea of such a dictionary was one Frederick Furnivall, a founder of the Early English Text Society, and one of the originators of the concept for and assistance in the preparation of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now the Oxford English Dictionary. Furnivall called the dictionary a “National Gallery of the race of English words.” Furnivall estimated it would take four years to complete. The first edition did not arrive until 1928.

James A. H. Murray was another of those whose vision created what we now know as the OED. “His membership in the British Philological Society and his book on Scottish dialects, published in 1868, allowed him to make many important scholarly contacts. In 1879 he was invited by Oxford University Press to edit the new English dictionary which had been proposed by the Philological Society. Despite some initial disagreements between Murray and the Press over editorial guidelines, Murray agreed to begin formal work on the project soon afterwards.

“Working in a specially constructed workroom called the ‘Scriptorium’, in which were kept two tons of source quotations that the Philological Society had collected, Murray proceeded with the project. Finding some errors and oversights in the Society’s materials, he established a ‘reading programme’, through which he gathered more quotations for the Dictionary. A reading programme similar to Murray’s is still used today as a principal method of assembling material for revising the Dictionary.” [Dictionary Directors]

The second editor of the OED was one Henry Bradley, a lexicographer and philologist. He was very much self-educated in philosophy, European and classical languages, and even Hebrew. He was known to write book reviews to assist in supporting his family. His review of the first part of the New English Dictionary had Murray consulting Bradley on etymological issues.

Henry Bradley

“In 1886, Bradley was employed by the Delegates of Oxford University Press to assist with the letter B, and in January 1888 he was appointed as the Dictionary’s second editor…. Bradley’s forty years’ work on the Dictionary encompassed the letters E-GL-MS-Sh (a section which included the longest entry ‘set’), St, and part of W.”

Other editors may be found HERE.

The Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 English words and more than 2.5 million quotes to support the words. As one might expect, William Shakespeare is the most “quotable” contributor. The dictionary is constantly being updated.

If one is interested, I might suggest “The Marking of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Peter Gilliver. This is Amazon’s description of the book: “This book tells the history of the Oxford English Dictionary from its beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. The author, uniquely among historians of the OED, is also a practising lexicographer with nearly thirty years’ experience of working on the Dictionary. He
has drawn on a wide range of sources–including previously unexamined archival material and eyewitness testimony–to create a detailed history of the project. The book explores the cultural background from which the idea of a comprehensive historical dictionary of English emerged, the lengthy struggles to bring this concept to fruition, and the development of the book from the appearance of the first printed fascicle in 1884 to the launching of the Dictionary as an online database in 2000 and beyond. It also examines the evolution of the lexicographers’ working methods, and provides much
information about the people–many of them remarkable individuals–who have contributed to the project over the last century and a half.”

Warning: The complete set is very pricey; yet, if one deals with words constantly, it might be worth the investment.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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