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Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a comprehensive multi-volume dictionary published by the Oxford University Press. Generally regarded as the definitive dictionary of Modern English, it defines around 500,000 headword s and includes some 2.5 million illustrative quotations.

Although the OED is a British institution, and perhaps most comprehensive with regard to British English, its policy is to attempt to record all known uses and variants of a word in all varieties of English, worldwide, past and present. To quote the 1933 Preface:

The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang.


The dictionary had no university connection originally; it was conceived in London as a project of the Philological Society , where Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall had become dissatisfied with the available dictionaries of English.

In June 1857 they formed an "Unregistered Words Committee" with the goal of finding words not listed in existing dictionaries. But the report that Trench presented that November was not a simple list of unregistered words; it was a study On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries. These, he said, were sevenfold:

  1. Incomplete coverage of obsolete words
  2. Inconsistent coverage of families of related words
  3. Incorrect dates for earliest use of words
  4. History of obsolete senses of words often omitted
  5. Inadequate distinction between synonyms
  6. Insufficient use of good illustrative quotations
  7. Space wasted on inappropriate or redundant content

Trench suggested that nothing short of a new and truly comprehensive dictionary would do: one that would be based on contributions from a large number of volunteer readers, who would read books, copy out passages illustrating various actual uses of words onto quotation slips, and mail them to the editor. In 1858 the Society agreed in principle to the project: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (NED).

The first editors

Trench played a key role in the first months of the project, but his ecclesiastical career meant that he could not give the dictionary the continued attention that it needed over a period that, it was realized, might easily be as long as 10 years. So Trench withdrew, and it was Coleridge who became the dictionary's first editor.

On May 12, 1860, Coleridge's plan for the work was published, and the research was set in motion. His home became the first editorial office; he ordered a grid of 54 pigeonholes in which could eventually be arrayed 100,000 quotation slips. In April 1861, the first sample pages of the dictionary were published... and then Coleridge, aged just 31, died of tuberculosis.

The editorship then fell to Furnivall , who had great enthusiasm and knowledge, but definitely lacked the temperament for such a long-term project. His energetic start saw many assistants recruited and two tons of readers' slips and other materials delivered to his house, and in many cases passed on to these assistants. But as months and years passed, the project languished. Furnivall began to lose track of his assistants, some of whom assumed that the project was abandoned; others died and their slips were not returned. The entire set of quotation slips for words starting with H was later found in Tuscany; others were assumed to be waste paper and burned as tinder.

In the 1870s Furnivall approached Henry Sweet and Henry Nicol to succeed him, but neither one accepted the post. But then, at a Society meeting in 1876, James Murray declared his willingness to try.

The Oxford editors

At the same time the Society had become concerned about the publication of what it was now clear would have to be an immensely large book. Various publishers had been approached over the years, either to produce sample pages or for the possible publication of the whole, but no agreements had been reached. These had included both the Cambridge and the Oxford University Press (OUP).

Finally in 1879, after two years of negotiations involving Sweet and Furnivall as well as Murray, the Oxford University Press agreed not only to publish the dictionary, but to pay Murray (who by this time was also president of the Philological Society) a salary as editor. They hoped that the work would now be completed in another 10 years.

It was Murray who really got the project off the ground and was able to tackle its true scale. Because he had many children, he chose not to use his house (in the London suburb of Mill Hill) itself as a workplace; an iron outbuilding, which he called the Scriptorium, was erected for him and his assistants. It was provided with 1,029 pigeonholes and many bookshelves.

Murray now tracked down and regathered the slips already collected by Furnivall, but he found them inadequate because readers had focused on rare and interesting words: he had 10 times more quotations for abusion then for abuse. He therefore issued a new appeal for readers, which was widely published in newspapers and distributed in bookstores and libraries. This time readers were specifically asked to report "as many quotations as you can for ordinary words" as well as all of those that seemed "rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way." Soon 1,000 slips per day were arriving at the Scriptorium, and by 1882 there were 3,500,000 of them.

It was February 1, 1884, 23 years after Coleridge's sample pages, when the first portion, or fascicle, of the actual dictionary was finally published. The full title had now become A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, and the 352 pages, covering words from A to Ant, were priced at 12s.6d. in Britain (today this fraction of a pound would be written 62.5p), or $3.25 in the US. The total sales were a disappointing 4,000 copies.

It was now clear to the OUP that the time to complete the work would be much too long; they supplied additional funding for assistants, but made two new demands on Murray in return. The first was that he move from Mill Hill to Oxford, which he did in 1885. Again he had a Scriptorium built on his property (to appease a neighbor, this one had to be half-buried in the ground), and the Oxford post office paid his work the compliment of installing a new pillar box (mailbox) directly in front of his house.

Murray was more resistant to the second requirement: that if he could not meet the desired schedule, then he must hire a second senior editor who would work in parallel, outside of his supervision, on words from different parts of the alphabet. He did not want to share the work, and felt that it would eventually go faster as he gained experience. But it didn't, and eventually Philip Gell of the OUP forced his hand. Henry Bradley, who Murray had hired as his assistant in 1884, was promoted and began working independently in 1888, in a room at the British Museum in London. In 1896 Bradley similarly moved to Oxford, working at the university itself.

Gell continued to harass both editors with the commercial goal of containing costs and speeding production, to the point where the project seemed likely to collapse; but once this was reported in the press, public opinion backed the editors. Gell was then fired, and the university reversed his policies on containing costs. If the editors felt that the dictionary would have to grow larger than had been anticipated, then it would; it was an important enough work for the time and money to be spent to finish it properly.

But neither Murray nor Bradley lived to see it done. Murray died in 1915, having been responsible for words starting with A-D, H-K, O-P, and T, or nearly half of the finished dictionary; Bradley died in 1923, having done E-G, L-M, S-Sh, St, and W-We. By this time two additional editors had also been promoted from assistant positions to work independently, so the work continued without too much trouble. William Craigie, starting in 1901, was responsible for N, Q-R, Si-Sq, U-V, and Wo-Wy; whereas the OUP had previously felt that London was too far from Oxford for the editors to work there, after 1925 Craigie's work on the dictionary was done in Chicago, where he had accepted a professorship. The fourth editor was C. T. Onions, who, starting in 1914, covered the remaining ranges, Su-Sz, Wh-Wo, and X-Z.

The fascicles

By early 1894 a total of 11 fascicles had been published, or about one per year: 4 for A-B, 5 for C, and 2 for E. Of these 8 were 352 pages long, while the last one in each group was shorter to end at the letter break (which would eventually become a volume break). At this point it was decided to publish the work in smaller and more frequent instalments: once every three months, beginning in 1895, there would now be a fascicle of 64 pages, priced at 2s.6d. (12.5p) or $1.00. If enough material was ready, 128 or even 192 pages would be published together. This pace was maintained thereafter until World War I forced reductions in staff. (The same material was also published in the original larger fascicles for those who might prefer them, each time enough consecutive pages were available.)

A second change in 1895 was the adoption of the title Oxford English Dictionary (OED) -- but only on the outer covers of the fascicles. The original title was still the official one and appeared everywhere else.

The 125th and last fascicle, covering words from Wise to the end of W, was published on April 19, 1928, and the full dictionary in bound volumes followed immediately.

The First Edition and the first Supplement

It had been planned to publish the New English Dictionary in 10 volumes, respectively starting with A, C, D, F, H, L, O, Q, Si, and Ti; but as the project proceeded, the later volumes became larger and larger, and while the full 1928 edition officially retained the intended numbering, Volumes IX and X were actually published as two "half-volumes" each, split at Su and V respectively. The entire edition was also available as a set of 20 half-volumes, with two choices of binding. The price was 50 or 55 guineas (52.50 or 57.75) depending on the format and binding.

It had been 44 years since the publication of A-Ant and, of course, the English language had continued to develop and change. So by this time the early volumes were noticeably out of date. The solution was for the same teams to now produce a Supplement, listing all words and senses that had developed since the relevant pages were first printed; this also gave the opportunity to correct any errors or omissions already noted. Purchasers of the 1928 edition were promised a free copy of the supplement when it appeared.

The supplement was again produced by two editors working in parallel. Craigie, now being in the United States, did most of the research on American English usages; he also edited L-R and U-Z, while Onions did A-K and S-T. The work took another 5 years.

In 1933 the entire dictionary was reissued, now officially under the title of Oxford English Dictionary for the first time. The volumes after the first six were adjusted to equalize them somewhat and eliminate the "half-volume" numbering; the main dictionary now consisted of 12 volumes, numbered as such, and respectively starting at A, C, D, F, H, L, N, Poyesye, S, Sole, T, and V. The supplement was included as the 13th volume. The price of the dictionary was now reduced to 20 guineas (21), which must have dismayed the buyers from 1928 as they received their free supplements.

The second Supplement and the Second Edition

In 1933 Oxford University had finally put the great dictionary to rest; all work ended, and the quotation slips went into storage. But of course the English language continued to change, and by the time that 20 years had passed, the outdatedness of the dictionary began to be bothersome.

There were three possible ways to update it. The cheapest would be to leave the existing work alone and simply compile a new supplement, of perhaps 1 or 2 volumes; but then anyone looking for a word or sense and unsure of its age would have to look in three different places. Or the existing supplement could be combined with the new material to form a larger supplement. The most convenient choice for the dictionary user would be for the entire dictionary to be reedited and retypeset, with each change included in its proper alphabetical place; but of course this would be most expensive, with perhaps 15 volumes to be produced.

The OUP chose the middle approach, replacing the supplement with a new one. Robert Burchfield was hired in 1957 to edit it; Onions, who turned 84 that year, was still able to make some contributions as well. The work was expected to take 7 to 10 years. It actually took 29 years, by which time the new supplement had grown to 4 volumes, starting with A, H, O, and Sea. They were published in 1972, 1976, 1982, and 1986 respectively, bringing the complete dictionary to 16 volumes, or 17 counting the first supplement.

But by this time it was clear that the full text of the dictionary now belonged online. Achieving this would still require rekeyboarding it once, but thereafter it would always be accessible for computer searching -- as well as for whatever new editions of the dictionary might be desired, starting with an integration of the supplementary volumes and the main text.

Editing an entry of the NOED using LEXX
Editing an entry of the NOED using LEXX

And so the New Oxford English Dictionary (NOED) project was begun. Retyping the text alone was not sufficient; all the information represented by the complex typography of the original dictionary had to be retained, which was done by marking up the content in SGML; and a specialized search engine and display software were also needed to access it. Under a 1985 agreement, some of this software work was done at the University of Waterloo, Canada, at a Centre for the New Oxford English Dictionary led by F.W. Tompa and Gaston Gonnet; this search technology would go on to be the basis for Open Text Corporation. Computer hardware, database and other software, development managers, and programmers for the project were donated by the British subsidiary of IBM; the color syntax-directed editor for the project, LEXX, was written by Mike Cowlishaw of IBM.

By 1989 the NOED project had achieved its primary goals, and editors Edmund Weiner and John Simpson , working online, had successfully combined the original text, Burchfield's supplement, and a small amount of newer material into a single unified dictionary. The word "new" was again dropped from the name, and the Second Edition of the OED, or the OED2, was published. (And, naturally, the first edition retronymically became the OED1.)

The OED2 was printed in 20 volumes. For the first time there was no attempt to start them on letter boundaries, and they were made almost equal in size, although still varying somewhat. The 20 volumes respectively started with A, B.B.C., Cham, Creel, Dvandra, Follow, Hat, Interval, Look, Moul, Ow, Poise, Quemadero, Rob, Ser, Soot, Su, Thru, Unemancipated, and Wave.

Although the content of the OED2 is mostly just a reorganization of the earlier corpus, the retypesetting provided an opportunity for two long-needed format changes. The headword of each entry was no longer capitalized, allowing the dictionary user to readily see those words that actually require a capital letter. And whereas James Murray had devised his own notation for pronunciation, there being no standard one at the time, the OED2 adopted today's International Phonetic Alphabet.

The Compact Editions

Meanwhile, in 1971, the full content of the 13-volume OED1 from 1933 was reprinted as a Compact Edition of just 2 volumes. This was achieved by photographically reducing each page to 1/2 its original size, so that 4 original pages were shown on each page ("4-up" format). The two volumes started at A and P, with the Supplement included at the end of the second volume.

The Compact Edition was sold in a case that also included, in a small drawer, a magnifying glass to help users read the reduced type. Many copies were sold through book clubs, which distributed them cheaply as premiums to their members.

In 1987 the second Supplement was published as a third volume in the same Compact Edition format. For the OED2, in 1991, the Compact Edition format was changed to 1/3 size (9-up), requiring stronger magnification but also allowing the entire dictionary to be published in a single volume for the first time. Even after these volumes had been published, though, book club offers commonly continued to feature the 2-volume 1971 Compact Edition.

The electronic versions

Now that the text of the dictionary was online, it could also be published on CD-ROM. There have been three versions so far. Version 1 (1992) was identical in content to the printed Second Edition, and the CD itself was not copy-protected. Version 2 (1999) had some additions to the corpus, and updated software with improved searching features, but had extensive copy-protection that made it inconvenient to use. Version 3 (2002) has yet more words and software improvements, and its copy-protection is, though not completely removed, considerably less annoying than version 2's.

In March 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online) became available to subscribers. The online database contains the entire OED2 and is also updated quarterly with revisions which will be included in the OED3 (see below). The online edition is the most up-to-date one available.

As the price for an individual to use this edition, even after a reduction in 2004, is 195 (or $295 US) every year, most subscribers are large organizations such as universities. Some of them do not use the Oxford English Dictionary Online portal and have legally downloaded the entire database into their organization's computers. Some public libraries and companies have subscribed as well.

A slightly more appealing method of payment was also introduced in 2004, offering residents of North or South America the opportunity to pay $29.95 US a month in order to access the online site. This allows people who have a less frequent pattern of usage to save versus the yearly plan (although people who will be using it every month will save with a yearly subscription).

The Third Edition

The planned third edition, or OED3, is intended as a nearly complete overhaul of the work. Currently (2004) John Simpson is the Chief Editor. Since the first work by each editor tends to require somewhat more revision than his later, more polished work, it was decided to balance out this effect by performing the early, and perhaps itself less polished, work of this revision pass at a letter other than A. Accordingly, the main work of the OED3 has been proceeding in sequence from the letter M. When the OED Online was launched in March 2000, it included the first batch of revised entries (officially described as draft entries), stretching from M to mahurat, and successive sections of text have since been released on a quarterly basis; by September 2004, the revised section reached as far as ottroye. As new work is done on words in other parts of the alphabet, this is also included in each quarterly release.

New material was also published in two Additions volumes in 1993, and a third in 1997, bringing the dictionary to a total of 23 volumes. However, no more Additions volumes are planned, and the OED3 is not expected to appear in printed fascicles. Rather, the new content can be viewed only through the OED Online (thus, only by subscription or at libraries offering this service). It is even possible that the OED3 will never be printed conventionally, but will only ever be available through the medium of a computer. That will be a decision for the future, when it is nearer completion.

The actual production of the new edition, of course, takes full advantage of computers, and not just for text editing. The Internet can now be searched for evidence of current usage, and submissions from readers, and the general public, now often arrive by e-mail.


  • J. R. R. Tolkien was once an employee of the OED. So was Julian Barnes, but he did not like the work.
  • The early modern English prose of Sir Thomas Browne is the most frequently quoted source of neologisms.
  • George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) is the most-quoted female.
  • Cursor Mundi, a religious epic written around 1300, is the most-quoted work.
  • One of the most prolific early contributors as a reader, Dr. W. C. Minor, was at the time imprisoned in a criminal lunatic asylum. He invented his own system of tracking quotations so he could send in his slips only when the editors were ready to use them.

See also

and, intended for non-native speakers

Further reading

  • Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, Clarendon Press, 1989, twenty volumes, hardcover, ISBN 0198611862
  • Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, K. M. Elisabeth Murray, Yale University Press, 2001, trade paperback, ISBN 0300089198
  • Empire of Words, The Reign of the Oxford English Dictionary, John Willinsky, Princeton University Press, 1995, hardcover, ISBN 0691037191
  • The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, Oxford University Press, 2003, hardcover, ISBN 0198607024
  • (UK title) The Surgeon of Crowthorne / (US title) The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, HarperCollins, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 0060175966

External links

Last updated: 10-31-2004 23:58:36