Literary quotations

Describing the completed Oxford English Dictionary in 1933, its two surviving editors William Alexander Craigie and Charles Talbut Onions identified its unrivalled collection of quotations as the essential element in the work:

Its basis is a collection of some five millions of excerpts from English literature of every period amassed by an army of voluntary readers and the editorial staff. Such a collection of evidence […] could form the only possible foundation for the historical treatment of every word and idiom which is the raison d’être of the work […] It is a fact everywhere recognized that the consistent pursuit of this evidence has worked a revolution in the art of lexicography. (Craigie and Onions, vol. 1, 1933: v; see also ‘The Special Character of the Dictionary’.)

But how were these excerpts or quotations chosen? Given their central role in the dictionary, it was important that they represented the complete range of the language over the entire history of its use. Certainly that had been the aim of the Philological Society members who had initiated the creation of the new dictionary in the 1850s, as well as James A. H. Murray and his co-editors. Identifying suitable works for volunteer readers to quarry for quotations had therefore always been fundamental to the project, and successive appeals to the public, issued from the late 1850s onwards, listed texts of many different types: historical, religious and political writings, letters and journals, publications relating to trades, pastimes, arts and crafts and domestic households, translations of classical literature, poems, plays, stories and novels (Brewer 2000; Gilliver 2016).

Nevertheless, once the published dictionary appeared—and in particular, once the second edition of the OED (which reproduced the original text of the first edition virtually in its entirety) had been digitized, so that for the first time the dictionary could be systematically searched—it became evident that the editors had hugely favoured literary authors for its citations. Nearly two million of those original five million quotations had been reproduced in the printed text, and the most cited individual sources turned out to be the major figures of the Victorian literary canon: Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Dickens, Tennyson, followed by a host of other such writers. The figures are striking: Shakespeare was quoted around 33,300 times in all, Scott 15,000, Milton 12,500 times, dwarfing the individual totals for those writing in non-literary genres.

Why was this so, given that today’s dictionaries do not now turn to literary writers as representative of the use of the general lexicon? The answer is that this is a comparatively recent development, following the development of the modern science of linguistics during the twentieth century. By contrast, over the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as earlier, literary works were seen as having a special status in national culture, and therefore to have an exemplary role in the documentation of the language (see further Examining the OED.)

James Murray displayed some interesting signs that he did not regard literary usage as paramount in the way that his contemporaries did, not least for purely practical reasons. When discussing the public reception of the first instalment of the dictionary, he told his fellow members of the Philological Society that ‘the general principle on which we have chosen a quotation for any century has been to take that which was intrinsically the best for its purpose, without any regard to its source or authority’, and that tracking down ‘literary quotations’ (in contrast to those from newspapers, which had been objected to by some reviewers) would have been impossibly time-consuming (Murray 1884: 525; see also Murray 1977: 223).1

Nevertheless he continued to expend considerable energy in identifying the meaning of unusual words or senses that had been used by ‘great writers’ of the time. In 1879 he had asked George Eliot about her choice of adust for her novel Romola (791205A, 791206A), a word later printed in the dictionary with Romola cited as sole example of use and the definition glossed ‘So explained by the author quoted’. In 1887 he wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson with a similar inquiry: ‘We are puzzled by the word brean in the following quotation from ‘The Merry Men’ in Cornhill June 1882, which some industrious reader has sent in for the Dicty’ (870219B); in this case, however, he was only able to elicit the apologetic confession from Stevenson that brean had been a misprint for ocean (870200A).

Years later in the editing process, Murray was still intent on elucidating the special vocabulary of literary authors, for example the vanishingly rare word harvestry, as used by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and outwards and thwarteous, both found in works by the poet laureate Robert Bridges (030106A, 120112A). Swinburne had ‘no idea where I may have used’ harvestry, and Murray and his staff couldn’t find it either, so the word was included in the dictionary with no supporting quotation (see 970607A and note 1 of this letter respectively). Bridges’ use of outward turned out to be most unusual—to this day it is the only example in the OED of the plural form of the noun—while Bridges himself could give little help with thwarteous: ‘As I remember nothing about this word I think it best to say nothing’ (030106A, 120112A).

These and similar responses must have influenced Murray’s own opinions on the vocabulary choices of poets, as expressed in response to an inquiry on the meaning of voidee-cup in a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (010308A):

One must not take the language of poets too seriously. One cannot now ask Rossetti where he got it or how he coined it; but if I may infer from the results of appealing to other poets for explanation of their cruces, he would probably say ‘I have really forgotten; I was under the impression that I had seen or heard it somewhere; can I have been under a misapprehension? what terrible people you dictionary fellows are, hunting us up about every word; you make life a burden.”

Such sentiments seem to have had little influence on the quotations published in the dictionary, however—and nor did Murray’s reported view ‘that novel reading was a waste of time’ (Murray 1977: 24).

It seems obvious now that the lexicographers’ interest in intensive documentation of literary authors will inevitably have distorted the linguistic record, in particular the OED’s representation of the language of everyday uses. As one of the principal editors of the modern version of the OED has observed, ‘Many of the concerns of the kitchen, the workshop, and the farmyard need never feature in literature at all […] if the records exist, a word is likely to be attested in what one might call “ordinary” everyday use before it appears in the “artificial” environment of literary writing’ (Weiner 2000: 171). In consequence, the OED3 revision (2000 onwards) is seeking to rectify this distortion, searching and quoting from a much wider range of sources, in particular newspapers and journals (see Examining the OED).

The OED’s literary bias had (and has) cultural consequences too. The representation of favoured literary authors, as listed above, reflects distinctively Victorian and Edwardian judgements, as can be seen from the remarkable prominence of Walter Scott as well as Shakespeare. Writers now regarded as major figures were neglected (William Blake, for example, was quoted only 100-odd times), women were cited in far fewer numbers than men, and the representation of overseas writers in English seems to have been vanishingly small (see ‘Women and the Dictionary, Part II: Authors’ and ‘English around the World’ respectively).

Notwithstanding these reservations, the OED’s literary bias means that its first edition (and to a considerable extent its succeeding versions, too) is an invaluable tool in elucidating the language of the major writers in traditional accounts of English literature whose vocabulary was so meticulously examined by the lexicographers. The potential of the dictionary to aid what one might call the lexical fingerprinting of individual authors was seen by one of Murray’s early correspondents, Constance Mary Pott, who wrote to him hoping for evidence to support her theory that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Murray demolished her arguments with a cruelty no doubt kindly intended, while responding with some intensity to her underlying hypothesis that the dictionary would be able ‘to give you information as to what authors first used the words’. For that, as he explained (801200B),

you must wait till the Dictionary appears, one of the aims of which is to give you the first known use of each word in the language. The quotations which I have now as the raw-material of the Dictionary number about 2½ millions…I doubt whether 3 weeks’ uninterrupted labour would enable me satisfactorily to give you a first date for each word; and with 15 years’ work before me, 3 hours is more than I ought to spend on it. I have nevertheless spent three times three in testing your work at various points, which were most convenient to myself, and which seemed most important for you […]

Establishing which authors had been the first to use a word in print—i.e. that if not the first to ‘coin or modify’ new words, which authors had at least ‘introduced them into the household & into General Society’ (a selective quotation from 801214A)—is a powerful indicator of their relative lexical inventiveness and/or their readiness to adopt newly current uses of language, something of great interest both to literary critics and to readers more generally.

Today’s version of the OED is not electronically searchable in ways which allow us to distinguish between revised and unrevised entries, so like Pott we will have to wait until the revision is complete (perhaps 2040) before we can use its evidence reliably for such studies.2 In the meantime, however, the OED is routinely (and gratefully) used by literary and cultural historians for the quality and characteristics of its quotation evidence as it stands: no other existing dictionary approaches the historical range and depth of the work initiated by Murray and the other editors of the first edition.

Further reading

Brewer, Charlotte. (2010). ‘The Use of Literary Quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary’, Review of English Studies, 61(248), 93125. Accessible at.

Brewer, Charlotte. (2012). ‘Shakespeare, Word-coining, and the OED’. In Peter Holland (Ed.), Shakespeare Survey (vol. 64, pp. 345357). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Accessible at

Brewer, Charlotte. (2015). ‘“That Reliance on the Ordinary”: Jane Austen and the Oxford English Dictionary’. Review of English Studies, 66(276), 744–765.Accessible at

Considine, John. (2009). ‘Literary Classics in OED Quotation Evidence’. Review of English Studies, 60(246), 620–638.

Crystal, David. (2004). The Stories of English. Allen Lane: London. (See chapter 13, ‘Linguistic Daring’, on Shakespeare and other writers.)

1. There is always some potential slippage between two possible senses in the use of literary and literature at this date, referring to texts representing learning and culture on the one hand (e.g. works of history, philosophy, theology, etc.), or to those with merit on account of their ‘qualities of form’ on the other—i.e. what we would now call creative writing (e.g. poetry and novels). On newspaper writing see 830503A note 7.
2. An electronic version of OED2 remained available for public use up to 2010, enabling some initial searches of the record of individual authors up to this date; see items on Shakespeare and Austen in further reading and the analyses on Examining the OED.