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OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY Short form OED. The foremost DICTIONARY of the English language, initiated by the Philological Society as The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (NED) and published by Oxford University Press, 1st edition 1928 (12 volumes, with later Supplements), 2nd edition 1989 (20 volumes). Shortly after its founding in 1842, the Philological Society appointed an ‘unregistered words committee’ to collect English words not listed in existing dictionaries, and its members, Herbert Coleridge, Frederick Furnivall, and Richard Chenevix Trench, came to the conclusion that a large new work was required. In 1857, Trench read two papers to the Society, jointly entitled ‘On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries’. They covered the need to find better ways to manage obsolete words, describe derivational families, provide accurate and dated citations, list important senses of words, distinguish synonyms, cover literary sources, and eliminate redundant material.

For Trench and his associates, a dictionary was a factual inventory rather than a tool for selecting only the ‘good’ words of a language (however decided); a lexicographer was therefore a historian rather than a moralist, judge, or teacher. An adequate dictionary of the language would record all possible words, much as the botanist Linnaeus had sought to record all possible plants. As a result of his recommendations, the Society passed resolutions in 1858 calling for a new dictionary ‘on historical principles’. It would follow the lead established in Germany by the classicist Franz Passow and the philologists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. In 1812, Passow had recommended, for the compilation of a Greek lexicon, that definitions should be supported by textual citations organized chronologically, and in 1838 the brothers Grimm had begun the Deutsches Wörterbuch, aiming to cover all the words of German ‘from Luther to Goethe’. The Society resolved in its turn to cover all the words of English from AD 1000 onward, their definitions emerging from citations garnered by volunteers in many countries reading thousands of texts.


Coleridge, as first editor, supervised the work of two committees, one dealing with literary sources, the other with etymology, and looked after the submission of citations, a process facilitated by the recent development of a good international postal system. On his premature death in 1861 at 31, the editorship passed to Furnivall, who realized that an efficient system of excerpting was needed. This meant that for the earlier centuries printed texts had to be prepared of manuscripts not hitherto easily available; he therefore founded in 1864 the Early English Text Society and in 1865 the Chaucer Society, preparing editions of texts of general benefit as well as immediate value to the project. None of this work, however, led to compilation; it was entirely preparatory and lasted for 21 years. There were in the end some 800 voluntary readers. Their enthusiasm was enormous, but in a process which depended on paper and pen alone a major drawback was the often arbitrary choices made by the relatively untrained volunteers regarding what to read and select, what to discard, and how much detail to provide.


The first editor properly so called was the schoolmaster James A. H. MURRAY. When appointed in 1879, he took over from Furnivall nearly two tons of material, mainly slips of paper. The Society and Murray entered into an agreement with the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, Oxford U., that the Press would publish the Society's New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, often also known as ‘the Society's Dictionary’ and ‘Murray's Dictionary’. It was agreed that the work would take ten years to complete, be published at intervals in fascicles, and in its final form would consist of four volumes of some 6,400 pages. Its aim was ‘to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records (c.AD 740) down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology’, but excluding words and meanings that did not survive the Norman Conquest in the 11c; it would include ‘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 use and slang’ (preface, 2nd edition).

The editors

The Dictionary had four cooperating editors between 1879 and 1928, each working with a staff of about six assistants. The first fascicle of 352 pages (a–ant) was published in 1884. In the same year, Henry Bradley joined Murray as one of his assistants, and the project moved from Mill Hill School, where Murray had been a master since 1870, to Oxford. There the work continued in two separate locations. Murray and his assistants worked in the famous Scriptorium (a garden shed fitted with pigeon-hole shelving in his home at 78 Banbury Road); the teams of Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and C. T. Onions, at the Old Ashmolean building in Broad Street.

The First Edition

Although the project continued to belong officially to the Philological Society, its presence in Oxford and the expense of sustaining it tended to make it more and more an Oxford undertaking. In 1895, this was reflected by the appearance for the first time, above the title on the cover of the fascicle deceit–deject, the words The Oxford English Dictionary. When, after 71 years of preparation, the complete work appeared in 1928, it was The Oxford English Dictionary, consisting of 12 volumes of 15,487 pages covering 414,825 words backed by 5m quotations, of which some 2m were actually printed in the dictionary text.

The Supplements

In 1933, Craigie and Onions issued a Supplement of 867 pages, intended to include details of all words and meanings that had come into the language while the OED was in preparation, but it fell well short of that target. In 1933, the team was dispersed and the enterprise brought to a close for a quarter of a century. A new Supplement was set in hand in 1957, under the editorship of Robert W. Burchfield. This work followed the pattern of the original in taking approximately four times as long to compile as the initial forecasts suggested, and ending up as four volumes instead of the one proposed volume of 1,275 pages. The Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (OEDS) reached out to the vocabulary of all parts of the English-speaking world, approximate parity of treatment being given to the major forms of English in the United Kingdom, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Volume A–G was published in 1972, H–N in 1976, O–Scz in 1982, and Se–Z in 1986. The independent existence of the OEDS was brought to a close by plans in the early 1980s for an electronic merging of the 12 volumes of the OED and the four volumes of the OEDS.

The Second Edition

Preparation for this began in 1983 and editorial work started the following year under the administrative direction of Timothy J. Benbow, and with John A. Simpson and Edmund S. C. Weiner as co-editors. An electronic system for integrating the original text and the supplements was created with help in the form of equipment and expertise from IBM (UK) Ltd. The U. of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, helped develop the software for parsing the text, with a grant from the government of Canada. The project also received a grant from the UK Department of Trade and Industry. More than 120 keyboarders of International Computaprint Corporation in Tampa, Florida, and Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, USA, started keying in over 350m characters, their work checked by 55 proof-readers in England. There were four major changes to the text: Murray's system for indicating pronunciation was replaced by the INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET; all foreign alphabets except Greek were transliterated; the initial capital letter given for each headword was replaced by a system that reflected the normal facts of the language in respect to capitalization (for example, American/amity, Lady day/lady-bird); and important changes were made to the typographical layout. The two sets of information were merged in 1987, and some 5,000 additional modern words and meanings were inserted. This edition was published in 1989 in 20 volumes. It has 21,728 pages and contains some 290,500 main entries, within which there are a further 157,000 combinations and derivatives in bold type (all defined), and a further 169,000 phrases and undefined combinations in bold italic type, totalling 616,500 word forms. There are some 2.4m illustrative quotations, some 6m words of text, and over 350m characters. The electronic base takes up 540 megabytes of storage.

The electronic OED

The text of the First Edition was made available on CD-ROM in 1988, and a CD-ROM version of the Second Edition appeared in 1992. Its electronic text, which has the capacity of indefinite adaptation and extension, is structured in such a way that it can yield any desired combinatorial information, such as all entered words of Arabic origin, all words or meanings first recorded in the year 1819, or all the illustrative quotations cited in the Dictionary from the works of a given author.