The greatest enterprise of its time – The Oxford English Dictionary

It’s Wednesday 6 June 1928 and Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister, is officially launching a book that has taken 70 years to complete.

‘Our histories, our novels, our poems, our plays – they are all in this one book,’ he says. ‘It is true that I have not read it – perhaps I never shall – but that does not mean I do not go often to it.’

You can’t blame the Prime Minister for not having read the whole book. The ten-volume work contains 15,490 pages and 227,779,589 letters and numbers. It is, of course, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Dictionary’s story began in 1857, when a group of English-language experts, known as the Philological Society of London, published the paper ‘On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries’.

Early dictionaries invited some criticism. When you looked up ‘oats’, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s pioneering work of 1755, the definition was more offensive than accurate: ‘A grain which in England is given to horses, but which in Scotland feeds the people’.

However, the philologists were more concerned with the amount of words that were missing, as well as the failure to provide the history of individual words. Having aired their grievances, they set about creating a dictionary that would do justice to the English language. Simon Winchester, in his history of the OED, writes that the aim was to create a ‘dictionary that would give, in essence and in fact, the meaning of everything’.

A team of volunteer readers was assembled, and each reader was given a list of English books. Their task was to record any quotations containing new words or meanings.

In 1879, the Society reached an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their dictionary, which now had the snappy working title, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles formed mainly on the Materials collected by the Philological Society and with the Assistance of many Scholars and Men of Science.

A Scotsman named James Murray was appointed editor, and he was presented with all the quotation slips that had been collected by the volunteer readers. As Winchester notes, Murray was shocked to find that ‘some of the sub-editors had put their hundredweight collections of papers into hessian sacks, and then left them to rot’. There was even a family of mice living in one of the sacks. Another problem was that all the slips for the letter ‘H’ were missing (they were eventually tracked down to an American diplomat’s villa in Florence).

There were still many books in the English language which hadn’t been read, so Murray launched an appeal for one thousand new readers. With the appeal, he attached a ‘List of books for which readers are wanted’, including books by 18th century authors (‘the literature of this century has hardly been touched’) and Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth and Charlotte Brontë. He also constructed a special workroom called a ‘Scriptorium’ where he could store all of the quotation slips he received.

In total, there were about two thousand readers for the Dictionary, with five million quotation slips submitted. Readers ranged from J.R.R. Tolkien, who would go on to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to William Chester Minor, a surgeon during the American Civil War who contributed to the Dictionary from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

It was originally predicted that the project would take ten years to complete. This was a miscalculation – in fact it took Murray and his team five years to reach the word ‘ant’. Murray died in 1915, so didn’t live to see the publication of his dictionary. He would, however, have been very pleased to hear the final remark of Stanley Baldwin’s speech in 1928: ‘The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest enterprise of its kind in history.’


Oxford English Dictionary
20 Volume Set


Alex Chambers is the Editorial Assistant in Higher Education. He is a keen supporter of the Melbourne Demons, well-placed commas and the communal sweet jar.


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