Skip to Content - Skip to Navigation

Essay: The Oxford English Dictionary

by Renee Brown

When Beowulf, the greatest and oldest single work of Old English, was composed, there was no dictionary; when Chaucer wrote the legendary Canterbury Tales, there was no dictionary, when the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, produced his graceful poems and plays, there was no dictionary.  The first, what would today be called, “dictionary” was compiled in 1604 by a man named Robert Cawdray; A Table Alphabeticall was only 120 pages.  One hundred and fifty years later, Dr. Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary.  This respectable publication documented 40,000 words and provided 114,000 quotations.  The project took him nine years to complete single handedly (McCrum 117-9).  It was not until one hundred years later that a project was begun which would far outperform the work of Johnson.  The idea for a new dictionary was proposed by the Philological Society of London; at the time it was titled New English Dictionary, but it would become known to the world as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED is the “accepted authority on the evolution of English language over the last millennium” (Oxford).  The purpose of a dictionary is to encompass a language “in its entirety,” the easy words as well as the hard ones, the common words as well as the obscure ones (Winchester 86).  English is a world language, spreading all over the globe, which means that the language is constantly expanding, so all words, written, spoken, and read, should be documented (Winchester 87).  The unique aspect of this reference is that it not only gives definitions for terms, like a dictionary is commonly understood to do, but the OED gives the meanings, history, pronunciation, and spelling of every word in the English language, both past and present.  It is an etymological analysis of words (Oxford).  The objective is to record “every word, every nuance, every shading of meaning and spelling and pronunciation, every twist of etymology, every possible illustrative citation from every English author” (Winchester 103).  In essence, the OED is a “biography” for every English word (Winchester 105).  The noble, yet immense ambition of Dr. James Murray.

When the idea of the dictionary was proposed in 1879, it was predicted to be 6,400 pages which would take ten years to complete; however, five years after the project began, the dictionary had reached only the word “ant” (Oxford).  Murray was the first editor of the OED.  He was born in Scotland and was self-educated.  He devoted twenty-eight years of his life to the dictionary before his death in 1915.  It was Murray’s believe that quotations needed to be in the dictionary in order to “demonstrate the full range of characteristics of each and every word with a very great degree of precision.  Quotations could show exactly how a word had been employed over the centuries” (Winchester 25-6).  There are several ways to find words to put in a dictionary:  listen to words spoken, copy words from other dictionaries, or read (Winchester 94).  This final method was to be employed by the Oxford lexicographers.  But it was physically impossible for Murray and his associates to read everything ever written, so they asked for contributors to send in words with definitions, quotations, and illustrations to add to the project.  Thousands of people answered the call for help, but one individual in particular contributed to the OED like a madman.

Dr. William Chester Minor was born in Connecticut, became a surgeon, and served in the US army during the Civil War (Winchester 13).  He suffered from delusions, thinking that the Irish were trying to kill him (Winchester 16).  He came to London, and in February of 1872, Minor shot and killed George Merrett, a man who neither knew Minor nor had any contact with him prior to the attack (Winchester 3).  Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum became Minor’s home and prison (Winchester xiii).  After eight years of confinement, Minor heard of Murray’s request for contributors to the dictionary, and seeing this as an opportunity for “intellectual stimulus,” he decided to become a contributor (Winchester 113-4).  Minor would read the books in his cell and document every word which he found fascinating; in this manner, he stayed a few letters ahead of the men working in Oxford (Winchester 139).  Oxford often received hundreds of words from Minor in a single week (Winchester 155).  Murray declared that Minor was “the most prolific of thousands of volunteer contributors” (Winchester xi).  Neither Dr. Minor nor Dr. Murray lived to see the completed dictionary.

Although his story is far less dramatic than that of Dr. Minor, there was another major contributor to the OED which should be noted.  Dr. Fitzedward Hall wrote to Oxford every single day for twenty-two years, making him another memorable contributor to the renowned Oxford English Dictionary (Winchester 167).

Because of the immense size of the project, the OED was published in fascicles.  Volume one, A-B was released in 1884 while the final volume took until 1928 to be completed.  Many other editors worked diligently on the project.  Henry Bradley, born in Manchester, began his work on the OED in 1888 and continued until his death in 1923.  William A. Craigie was the third editor.  He became editor in 1901, working mainly from the letter N to the end of the alphabet.  C.T. Onions claims that he had the last word on the OED because he was responsible for cross-referencing the word “zyxt,” which is literally the final word in the dictionary.  Onions also worked on the longest entry in the dictionary, the word “set” (Oxford). 

The First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is ten volumes, totaling 15, 490 pages.  It took the editors seventy years to complete the 252,200 entries.  The 2,000 contributors sent in five million quotations, 1,861,200 of which appear in the dictionary (Oxford). 

Only five years after the publication of the final volume, Oxford University Press, which had assumed the role of publishing the monstrosity, released the Supplement which updated the OED by adding new words.  Four more supplementary volumes were completed between 1972 and 1986.  In 1989 the Second Edition was published.  There have been three other editors who have worked on updates to the OED.  Robert Burchfield was born in New Zealand, and he is responsible for broadening the scope of the dictionary to include words used in North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Pakistan.  Many words he assimilated into the dictionary were slang terms.  The two current editors are Edmund Weiner and John Simpson (Oxford). 

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is twenty volumes, consisting of 21,730 pages.  This massive reference weights 137.72 pounds and took 6,243 pounds of ink to print a single copy of the completed work.  There are 291,500 entries with fifty-nine million words and 350 million characters.  The longest entry is the word “set” which has 430 senses, 60,000 words, and 326,000 characters.  In the Second Edition are 2,436,600 quotations.  The most often quoted work is the Bible with 25,000 references; the most often quoted author is Shakespeare with 33,300 references.  Hamlet alone is quoted almost 1600 times in the dictionary (Oxford).

In 1992 the text was printed on CD-ROM.  This project included 120 typists and fifty proofreaders.  The endeavor prices at 13.5 million US dollars and took five years to complete (Oxford).  Recently the OED has gone online.  It took eighteen months and 150 typists to input the dictionary into the correct format (Elliott).  Five hundred and forty megabytes of memory are used to hold the complete dictionary (Oxford).  In order to get the software development needed to input the information, Oxford University Press spent over one million US dollars (Elliott).  Never has the dictionary been profitable to Oxford University Press which spent approximately fifty-five million US dollars to fund the revision program (Oxford).  Today there is a website for the Oxford English Dictionary where people can look up words among other things at www.oed.com.  There is also a “word of the day” site produced by the OED at http://oed.com/cgi/display/wotd.

The Third Edition of the dictionary is due in 2020, but until then, the OED is continually updated with the release of Supplements (Sharpiro “Dictionary” par. 25).  Some interesting words and phrases which have found a home in the dictionary, although they may seem as though they do not belong are chat room, chick flick, duh, munchies, wedgie, and wussy (Sharpiro “Short List” par. 2-11).  Others include Grinch, beltway, lap dance, road rage, and get real (Sharpiro “Dictionary” par. 7).  The longest word in the dictionary is forty-five letters long:  Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease “caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust” (Sharpio “Short List” par. 13).

The drive to document the history of every English word fueled Dr. Murray and future editors and staff members to work tirelessly on what we now have as the Oxford English Dictionary.  It is unarguably the most complete dictionary in the English language, which is being revised daily.  The OED is one of the greatest contributions to language yet, and it remains a paradigm of perfection.

Works Cited

Elliott, Laura. “How the Oxford English Dictionary Went Online.” Ariadne. 26 June 2000. <http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue24/oed-tech>.

McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2003. <http://www.oed.com>.

Sharpiro, Howard. “Dictionary Grows as English Language Evolves.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 4 February 2003.

Sharpiro, Howard. “A Short List of New Words.” Philadelphia Inquirer.  4 February 2003.

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

  • Writing Center
  • Eicher Hall, Room 218
    860 Grant Street
    Indiana, PA 15705
  • Phone: 724-357-3029
  • Regular Hours
  • Monday through Thursday
  • 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
  • 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Friday
  • 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.