The special character of the dictionary

From the publication of its first entries in 1884 (A–Ant), the dictionary that became known as the OED was recognized as far more ambitious than any of its predecessors. Reviewers of that first instalment hailed the huge undertaking as ‘of almost inestimable value to scholars’ (A New English Dictionary’ 1884: 195), and by 1897 The Times felt able to identify the work as ‘The greatest effort probably which any University, it may be any printing press, has taken in hand since the invention of printing’ (quoted in The Periodical 1928: 29).1 Former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone told its editor James Murray that he ‘look[ed] with a real respect, I might—almost—say reverence, on your Herculean labours’ (960316A), while other of Murray’s correspondents refer to its special status as ‘a perfectly national Undertaking’ (841224A), or a ‘monumental work’ from which Dr Murray should not be distracted lest the result were ‘a national loss’.2 Once it was completed in 1928, 44 years after first publication, another Prime Minister (Stanley Baldwin) hailed the OED as ‘unrivalled in completeness and unapproachable in authority; as near infallibility, indeed, as we can hope to get this side of Rome’ (Baldwin 1928: 7–8).

What made the OED such an unprecedented and authoritative work? Probably the most influential of its forebears was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, a work which had dominated the lexicographical landscape since its first publication in 1755 and was still being issued in various forms well into the nineteenth century. Johnson had been the first lexicographer of English to include quotations from original texts to illustrate how words had been used in context, an essential feature of the OED. He had largely concentrated on recording the vocabulary of a limited period of English, however (from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century), and more than half of his quotations were drawn from just seven sources: Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Bacon, the Bible, Addison, and Pope. As a result, the scope of his dictionary was limited not just chronologically but also culturally. His work set a new standard in the use of English as well as of lexicography, but fell far short of objectively recording language as it was (and had been) used. An important US tradition of English language dictionaries had also been established in the wake of Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language (1828), but while expanding the word list these works too were limited in historical range and quotation evidence.3

By contrast, the dictionary proposed by the Philological Society in the 1850s set out to cover the entire chronological sweep of English, from its earliest records through to the late nineteenth century, aiming for comprehensive and unbiased coverage of vocabulary. As one of its founders, the Dean of Westminster, Richard Chenevix Trench, put it, the ideal dictionary should be an ‘inventory’, an objective and dispassionate record of a language in its entirety: ‘It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. […] He is an historian of [the language], not a critic.’ Trench also recognized the inevitable corollary: ‘If […] we count it worth while to have all words, we can only have them by reading all books; this is the price we must be content to pay’ (Trench 1858: 4–5, 69).

Unsurprisingly, recording all words, and reading all available sources, proved to be ideals realizable only in part. Nevertheless they were at the heart of the new dictionary project, which took shape in the late 1850s and early 1860s and was from the start reliant on volunteer readers and sub-editors to carry out the reading and recording, all of whom communicated with each other and the editor by post.4 After energetic beginnings, the project stagnated for some years, but revived in the late 1870s, when the then-editor Frederick James Furnivall, along with Henry Sweet, Walter William Skeat, and other members of the Philological Society, focussed their attentions on persuading Oxford University Press to finance the work. As negotiations proceeded in 1877, Sweet sent an important document to the Secretary to the Delegates of OUP Bartholomew Price in which he set out the nature and value of the project (770420A). This usefully includes a nutshell account of the planned new dictionary, emphasizing the importance of full historical coverage and comprehensive collection of quotations on the one hand, and—a newly identified element—‘linguistic science’ on the other:

The great advance of Philology of late years has completely changed the conditions of a good dictionary. What is now required is fullness of citations and historical method, or, in other words, a full number of citations from every period of the language arranged so as to exhibit the history of each word. It is also requisite that every department, whether etymology or pronunciation & c., must be treated according to the latest results of linguistic science. But the essential groundwork is a full body of citations.

Sweet’s mention of the ‘great advance of Philology’ refers to the transformation of the study of language by historical linguists (or philologists, to use the then-current term) in Europe over the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, who had realized that features of contemporary language use could be traced back, through systematic study, to the evidence of past uses of language preserved in medieval manuscripts and early printed books—exactly the method for compiling the dictionary that the Philological Society had embarked on. (The OED was in fact one of several national dictionary projects—in Germany, the Netherlands, and France—to emerge from this ‘historical turn’ in language study, characterized by the application of ‘scientific’ method; later in his letter Sweet mentions the French dictionary by Littré).5 Once all the quotations had been amassed, entries for each word could be compiled showing how its various features—etymology, spelling, pronunciation, successive senses—had developed over time, in each case illustrated by examples of historic use (The Periodical 1928: 15–17 explains in more detail how the dictionary was made).

Sweet’s document paints an optimistic picture both of the state of the materials in 1877 and the speed with which they could be edited and published. Practice was very different from theory, however, and dispute over editorial policy and its realization characterized much of the dictionary’s subsequent history. For example, it was simply impossible to include all words. But selection necessitated discrimination: which words should be left out and why? The famously pragmatic Skeat had early suggested that ‘The mere piling up of additional words, especially of words of wh[ich] the meaning is self-obvious, gives no value to a Dicty, but rather decreases it’, that nonce-words should be excluded (‘we need not record the dream of every driveller’), and that ‘Common-sense ought to effect a “compromise” Dictionary. This is all we can hope for, & what we shd be glad to get’ (781130B). Once the OUP Delegates became involved in supporting the dictionary, they too tried to curtail its scope, repeating Skeat’s points and additionally objecting to the inclusion of slang, Americanisms, and other categories of vocabulary (especially when cited from newspapers)—and to what they regarded as the over-generous use of quotations. They also leant heavily on Murray to minimize his treatment of what Sweet had termed ‘linguistic science’ and in general deplored ‘a growing tendency to expansion’, for the obvious reason that this continually delayed publication while increasing its cost (see 770629A and 960402A for examples of criticism and advice from the Delegates at two different stages of the dictionary’s progress).6

Murray was forced to give in to some of these demands as a condition of continuing the work. In general he resisted, however, with the result that virtually every entry written by him and his co-editors created a new body of knowledge, not only in mapping the biography of every word and sense from first to last use, but also in the supply of never-before-researched information on etymology, spellings, pronunciation, and other features, including grammar and usage. (An example of Murray’s determination in hunting down all available information on an individual word or sense, in this case beat, can be seen in the sequence of letters to Frederick Thomas Elworthy starting at 851118B).

The completed dictionary transformed English language lexicography. That is not to say that the work was not, in some specific areas, flawed and imperfect, not least when judged from today’s perspective. These fault lines often occur in culturally sensitive areas of the vocabulary which it is now particularly revealing to examine, especially since some of the choices Murray and his fellow-editors made continue to affect the OED today (owing to its continued dependence on the content of the original dictionary)—and are of wider importance both in language studies and society more generally.

Our commentaries discuss a selection of these areas: ‘Defining Obscenity’ explores some of the issues involved in including terms relating to sex and the body, while ‘Standards of “Correct” English’ illustrates the difficulty Murray had in maintaining his descriptive ideals consistently. Further commentaries show how the first-edition editors replicated the cultural preferences of their time in treating World Englishes, literary quotation sources, and women authors respectively.

1. For other reviews see Bailey (2000b).
2. Last two quotations from Girls’ Public Day School Company to J. A. H. Murray, 21 September 1891 (unpublished, Bodleian Library, MS. Murray 9/1 Folder 3). For more on the OED and nationalistic sentiments see Examining the OED.
3. On earlier dictionaries see Cowie (2009).
4. Editors were successively Herbert Coleridge, Furnivall, and Murray (followed after Murray’s death in 1915 by his two surviving co-editors William Alexander Craigie and Charles Talbut Onions, the third co-editor, Henry Bradley, having died in 1923). On the full history of the dictionary see Gilliver (2016).
5. For more on the intellectual context of the OED see Examining the OED and the references there cited.
6. A full account of the ruthless and often inconsistent excision of words and quotations from editorial proofs, and of the various crises provoked by the Delegates’ determination to speed up the pace of production, can be found in Mugglestone (2005) and Gilliver (2016) respectively.