The Oxford English Dictionary: a time - binding marvel.
Levinson, Martin H.
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Name: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Publisher: Institute of General Semantics Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Languages and linguistics Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Institute of General Semantics ISSN: 0014-164X
Date: Oct, 2011 Source Volume: 68 Source Issue: 4

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Time-binding: the characteristic human ability to transmit information, using language and other symbols, across time; the potential for individuals to learn from their own and other people's experiences; the potential for each generation to start off from where the last generation left off; the potential to become aware of this ability; this allows for the formation of cultures and the ability to study cultures, etc. (1)

Alfred Korzybski published Science and Sanity, his magnum opus that introduced general semantics to the world, in 1933. That same year another important literary work emerged, a twelve-volume (plus one volume Supplement) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that concentrated more particularly on word meanings. The OED, whose first editor was appointed in 1859 when the lexicon was known as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, has gone on to become the premiere dictionary of the English language, a "living document" that has been growing and changing for over 150 years.

This article will map the historical roots of the OED, how it came into being, and what its present and future looks like.

A Brief History of English Lexicography: From the Middle Ages to the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The first reference books for English-speaking people were bilingual glossaries that supplied English equivalents for Latin or French words. In the Middle Ages, difficult English words were also sometimes glossed. Most early lexicographers were schoolmasters who assembled glossaries or dictionaries as teaching aids for their students, as little else was obtainable.

Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall ... (the complete title of this work fills the entire title page), which was published in 1604, is generally considered to be the first monolingual English dictionary. (2) It contained 2,500 vocabulary entries and incorporated almost 90 percent of the words of Edmund Coote's English Schoolmaster, a grammar, prayer book, and word list with brief definitions published in 1596. That Coote's dictionary had so many "borrowed" terms is understandable as the history of English lexicography is full of recurring and successful acts of copying.

A Table Alphabeticall dealt with "hard vsuall English wordes ... gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons." (3) Seventeenth-century lexicographers thought that women, because they received less schooling than men, were more apt to need assistance in decoding "hard" words.

In the early eighteenth century, some dictionaries began to go beyond the hard-words tradition and include the meanings of all sorts of words. John Kersey, regarded by famed linguist and general semanticist Allen Walker Read as the first professional lexicographer, (4) was the editor of such a lexicon, The New English Dictionary (1702), which included commonplace terms of daily language like about, and, any, arm, etc. Kersey's dictionary was the first to attempt systematic coverage of familiar words in addition to arcane ones.

Nathan Bailey's An Unusual Etymological Dictionary (1721) continued to push English lexicography forward by giving great attention to the etymological roots of words. Containing roughly 40,000 entries, An Unusual Etymological Dictionary represented language as it was used and included taboo terms. Bailey's etymological dictionaries, whose thirty editions spanned the years 1721-1802, were immensely popular during the 18th century and were the chief competitors to Samuel Johnson's prodigious word list.

In 1747, Samuel Johnson sent the Earl of Chesterfield his plan to put together a dictionary that would survey the total English language and show the history of every word. Nine years later Johnson published his Dictionary, a book that surveyed only some of the English language; specifically 42,773 entries that were so well defined with so many illustrious quotations (over 114,000 of them that were drawn from every area of literature) that it stood as the most authoritative dictionary in English for well over a hundred years.

Unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes words and usage, Johnson's dictionary was rather prescriptive (more than 800 words are damned as "barbarous," "vile," "improper," or "low") and somewhat quirky. Johnson famously described oats as a grain which "in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people."

Charles Richardson's eccentric New Dictionary of the English Language (1836-1837) had no definition field, relying exclusively on quotations to establish and demonstrate meaning. Its emphasis on showing the earliest sense of a word and providing illustrative quotations to help demonstrate changes in senses, served as a model for the historicism found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Noah Webster, who has been called the "Father of American Scholarship and Education" and whose name has become synonymous with "dictionary," was about seventy years old when his two-volume An American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828. Webster's dictionary contained about 70,000 words, as compared to about 58,000 words in the 1818 edition of Johnson, and was superior to Johnson's work in its coverage of scientific and technical terms and its fuller definitions. However, Webster's dictionary included very few illustrative quotations, something that Webster would be rebuked for by Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster, who in November 1857 presented two papers before the London Philological Society that inspired the undertaking of the finest dictionary in the English language.

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary: 1857-1933

In his two papers, published by the Philological Society under the title On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, Trench listed seven areas in which past dictionaries had been defective, giving examples for each. The seven areas are:

1. They failed to include obsolete terms by any consistent method.

2. Families or groups of words were inconsistently entered in dictionaries.

3. Earlier and later examples of illustrative quotations could be found other than those listed in dictionaries.

4. Coverage of important early meanings was defective, especially important for understanding the historical development of the word.

5. Synonym discriminations were neglected.

6. The literature had been inadequately surveyed for apt quotations to illustrate the first use of a word, its etymology, and its meaning.

7. A miscellany of irrelevant and redundant information--mythological characters, encyclopedia articles, and so on--was cluttering up dictionaries needlessly. (5)

Trench believed the purpose of dictionaries was to inventory language and not set standards for it, as was the wont of the Academic Francaise and the Accademia della Crusca. He also believed that the makers of dictionaries should be historians not critics of words: "A dictionary is an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view, and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered ... may be nearly as instructive as the right ones . ..." (6)

Although he did not call for a new dictionary, Trench called for the members of the Philological Society to contribute to the inventory of the whole of the English language to supplement existing dictionaries and aid future ones. His appeal for volunteer participation by society members was partly motivated by the example of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (the creators of Grimm's Fairytales), who, through using voluntary readers, were able to publish in 1852 the first part of the Deutsches Wortebuch, the great historical dictionary of the German language.

Following Trench's talks, the Philological Society decided that rather than supplementing current dictionaries that a new one should be produced and a title, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, was assigned to the work. The first editor, Herbert Coleridge (the grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), was appointed in 1859. Sadly, he died in 1861, but in his two-year stint as editor, Coleridge and Frederick James Furnivall, a Philological Society member who initially offered Dean Trench the suggestion to analyze deficiencies in English dictionaries, were able to organize volunteer readers to begin cataloguing the entire literature of the English language.

In 1861, Furnivall, a man of endless energy and enthusiasm who liked to labor on multiple ventures simultaneously, took over as editor and he moved things slowly along. But the real start of the dictionary took place in 1879 with the appointment of James A. H. Murray, a Scottish schoolmaster and active member of the Philological Society.

Murray's scholarly temperament and resolute mind-set were well matched for his post, and it was predicted at the time that the dictionary would take ten years to complete. In fact, it took fifty years and that was not because Murray and his colleagues shirked in their obligations. A la Korzybski's "extensional theory of happiness," they actually worked quite hard and the ten-year goal they set seemed sound. However, the scope of the project was simply enormous. (When the dictionary was published in 1928, it numbered 15,487 pages, each of which contained three columns of type. Based on a file of between five and six million citations, it printed more than 1.8 million. It included more than 240,000 headwords and contained over 400,000 entries. The OED is perhaps the greatest work of scholarship ever produced.)

Each of the five to six million citations had to be meticulously gathered from an army of readers; alphabetized; separated in a logical manner; examined by assistant editors and defined, with apt quotations selected for inclusion; and checked or honed by Murray or other supervising editors. The first OED fascicle, containing words from A-Ant, was published five years into the ten-year project in 1884. (NB: The OED was put out in sections from 1884 to 1928.)

Murray had to deal with many critical questions in assembling the OED. For example:

* At what point in history should words begin to be included in the Dictionary? (He chose the year 1150, which meant obsolete Old English words did not make it into the OED.)

* What words, if any, should be excluded from the lexicon? (His criterion for exclusion was that inclusion would not improve the Dictionary and might needlessly impede it. Because the OED was begun in the Victorian Age, contemporary opinion of that time forced Murray to omit certain sexual words and coarse colloquial expressions.)

* How many varying pronunciations should be given and how should they be indicated? (Murray decided to give all possible pronunciations where several were current and the method he came up with for showing pronunciation met with little criticism when the completed dictionary was reviewed.)

* Should spelling reform be a consideration for the OED? (The answer was no.)

* How should combinations, compounds, and derivatives be handled? (In 1879,Murray told the Philological Society that after many trials he found a satisfactory principle on which to divide compounds into those that should be treated as separate words and those not requiring definition.)

* What typefaces and layout should be used? (The typography chosen was clear enough to allow the production of a two-volume micrographic "compact" edition in 1971 that comes with a magnifying glass.)

Although the Dictionary was not flawless, and the fact that it took fifty years to finish produced some irregularities, for example, the paperwork for the word hondmaid was lost so the word did not make it into the OED, one of Murray's great achievements as Editor was to develop guidelines that ensured the standardization of treatment throughout and establish an archetype that has lasted over time.

Before the Dictionary was complete from A to Z, three new editors, specifically Henry Bradley, W.A. Craigie, and C.T. Onions, joined Murray in the OED-publishing project. These men and their staffs of subeditors, assistants, proofreaders, and other helpers worked steadily, producing fascicle after fascicle until finally, in April 1928, the last fascicle rolled off the presses. In 1933, the work was formally given its current title, the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Some OED trivia: Murray was knighted in 1908 for his work on the Dictionary; J.R.R. Tolkien, at the very start of his career, contributed etymologies for scores of words between "waggle" and "warlock;" George Eliot is the most-quoted female in the OED.)

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary: 1933-1989

In 1957, Robert W. Burchfield was appointed Editor for a new Supplement to replace the 1933 volume. For the first time, the OED team drew on the specialized knowledge of experts and more scientific and technical terms were added. The Dictionary was also broadened to include many more words from North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean. Substantially longer than the 1933 edition, this new Supplement was published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986.

In 1982, as Burchfield's work on the Supplement was nearing completion, Oxford University Press (OUP) took up the question of how to update traditional methods of compiling entries and how to transfer source material from paper to an electronic medium. Two years later, in 1984, the OUP formed the New Oxford English Dictionary Project, which had as its objective the publishing of an integrated print edition in 1989 and the provision of a full electronic text to use as a basis for future revisions and extensions of the Dictionary.

For the next five years, custom-built computer software, known as "Oedipus Lex," pre-processed the text and re-worked it into an electronic format and the Supplement was re-typed by 120 keyboarders with more than 50 proofreaders checking the results of their work. In Oxford, a core group of lexicographers reviewed, corrected, and edited the new electronic Dictionary; adding 5,000 new words and senses to 400,000 definitions previously expressed in 60,000,000 words. Eighty-five percent of the work was done by software, but the remaining 15 percent required the critical appraisal of the editors. In 1989, the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (OED2) was published on time and to great acclaim--The Christian Science Monitor declared it "The Definitive Word on English"; the novelist Andrew Burgess called it the greatest publishing event of the twentieth century. (7)

The OED2 contained 15 percent more headwords than the first edition of the OED. In contrast to the first edition, it also employed the International Phonetic Alphabet as the pronunciation guide, utilized capital letters for headwords only when that would be the normal spelling, had more accurate quotes, and used modern orthographical conventions. The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set, which required 60,000 words to describe some 439 senses.

The finished work filled 22,000 pages, which were bound in twenty ample volumes that were more or less equal in size. Because of its existence, more is known about the history of English than any other language in the world.

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary: Into the Electronic Age

In 1992, a massive twenty-volume work that occupies four feet of shelf space and weighs 137 pounds was reduced to a thin, glossy disk that requires virtually no space and weighs just a few ounces, with the publication of the CD-ROM version of the OED.

The CD version transformed the way people used the Dictionary to search and retrieve information. Complex investigations into word origins or quotations that would have been impossible to conduct using the print edition could now be done in a matter of seconds. Because the OED's electronic set-up made it so easy to use, a wide range of readers beyond just members of the scholarly community began to access it.

Work on the third edition got under way almost as soon as the second edition was published and by March 2011 three-hundred academics had gone from M to Ryvita. (8) (NB: The chief work of the OED3 has been proceeding in sequence from the letter M.)

The content of the third edition is being broadly revised and instead of adding new material in supplements to the main edition or simply intermingling new information throughout the body of the old edition, the entire work is being updated. Every three months, the results of the revision program and new words are published online. In the first quarterly update of 2011, the OED included a number of new initialisms in its pages, to wit, LOL, BFF, IMHO, and OMG (that's laugh out loud, best friends forever, in my humble opinion, and oh my God), thus legitimizing the terms used by millions in texts, e-mails, and instant messages. Moreover, the Dictionary added its first ever symbol, <3, which represents a heart or love. However, resisting the trend toward visual representations in dictionaries, there are still no pictures in the OED.

There is currently no plan to put out a print version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive at the Oxford University Press, says such a version would be too unwieldy and the market for print dictionaries is fast disappearing. (9)

Fifty-five million dollars in funding has been committed to the third edition, money that the Oxford University Press will probably never recover, as at no period in its history has the OED been profitable commercially for the Oxford University Press. (10) But the primary purpose of the OED has always been to disseminate knowledge to the world so work on it will go on despite the likelihood of a monetary loss.

In his celebrated "Introduction to the OED," James Murray (11) stated, "... the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference." And there will never be a discernible circumference because English keeps expanding and changing through new idioms, neologisms, slang; foreign, scientific, and technical terms; and linguistic invention. Documenting that expansion and change has been the charge of those who work on the OED, a time-binding resource that has furnished many past generations, and will hopefully furnish many future ones, with ongoing and comprehensive descriptions of words from the English language.


(1.) Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce I. Kodish, Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition (Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001), 213.

(2.) Sidney I. Landau, Dictionaries: The Are & Craft of Lexicography (New York: Scribner, 1984), 35.

(3.) Ibid., 41.

(4.) Ibid., 44.

(5.) Ibid., 67.

(6.) Ibid., 68.

(7.) Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer's Dilemma (New York: Walker, 2009), 161.

(8.) Johnny Davis, "Modern technology and the changing nature of the dictionary," 04/26/2003501699/2/ (Accessed June 13, 2011).

(9.) Paul Sims, "Death of the Published Dictionary: Oxford English Dictionary to Exist Solely Online," article-1307205/Oxford-English-Dictionary-exist-solely-online.html/ (Accessed June 13, 2011).

(10.) "History of the OED," (Accessed June 13, 2011).

(11.) K. M. Elisabeth Murray, "Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary," in Simon Winchester, ed., The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 194.


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Martin H. Levinson, PhD, is the President of the Institute of General Semantics and the author of numerous articles and several books on General Semantics and other subjects. His latest book is Brooklyn Boomer: Growing Up in the Fifties (2011).
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