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
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
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
* 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
* 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
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
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
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,"
(Accessed June 13, 2011).
(10.) "History of the OED,"
http://www.oed.com/public/oedhistory#future/ (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.
Berg, Donna Lee. A Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1993.
Burchfield, R. W. and Aarsleff, Hans. The Oxford English Dictionary
and the State of the Language. Washington, DC: Library of Congress,
1988. Green, Jonathon. Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the
Dictionaries They Made. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
Landau, Sidney, I. Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography.
New York: Scribner, 1984.
Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer's Dilemma. New York: Walker,
2009. Mathews, M. M. A Survey of English Dictionaries. London: Oxford
University Press, 1933.
Mugglestone, Linda (ed.). Lexicography and the OED. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000.
Murray, K. M. Elisabeth. Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray
and the Oxford English Dictionary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
Raymond, Darrell R. (ed.). Dispatches from the Front: The Prefaces
to the Oxford English Dictionary. Waterloo, Ontario: University of
Shea, Ammon. Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. New
York, Penguin, 2008.
Willinsky, John. Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder,
Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York:
Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the
Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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).