The History of the Oxford English Dictionary

Term Paper, 2001

20 Pages, Grade: Good


Table of content


The history of the NED

The making of the NED
Searching for quotations
Selection of word entries
The ordering of entries

The supplements
Supplement I
Supplement II

The making of the Second Edition of the OED
Differences between the NED and the OED II


The electronic OED




The history of dictionaries certainly goes back to the 8th century, when the custom of making collections of glosses grew up. These collections, called glossarium or glossary, were a great help to students, as they were also a sort of dictionary. In the 10th century, Abbot Ælfric produced a Latin grammar book, including a short Latin-English dictionary - the first of its kind. In 1440 Galfridus Grammaticus produced the first English-Latin dictionary which was printed in 1499 by Pynson and bore the title Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum.

Until the 16th century, the emphasis of dictionaries lay on translating foreign words into English. Apparently, there was no need for an English-English dictionary, i.e. a dictionary which described English words to English people. In that time a lot of foreign words, mostly Latin ones, made their way into ‘standard’ English, which at first caused no debate but then was criticised by language purists. According to them English was in danger of being taken over by foreign languages and needed special support. This idea was the beginning of English-English dictionaries.

In 1604 Robert Cawdry brought out his Table Alphabetical. About three thousand ‘hard’ words which had become common in English were listed and explained. Henry Cockeram produced the first work with the title The English Dictionary in 1623. Like other dictionaries of that time, it primarily dealt with ‘difficult’ English words. A polyglot dictionary of eleven languages was published in 1617 by John Minsheu. The Ductor in Linguas was the most monumental dictionary in the 17th century and for the first time, etymology was given some attention. In 1674 John Ray produced a dictionary which dealt with dialect words. It was an unexpected success and people all over the country began looking for additional local terms and sent them to Ray, who brought out a second and enlarged edition of this dictionary in 1691. John Ray can be regarded as the “remote originator of the English Dialect Society” (Mathews 1966, p. 26).

Until then, dictionaries followed the line of old glossaries and only dealt with terms which were not common or rather unusual in the English language. This changed in the 18th century when the first attempts to publish dictionaries containing all English words were made. In 1702 John Kersey published A New English Dictionary; or, a complete collection of the most proper and significant words, commonly used in the language... As the title says, the attention of his work lay on the most used English words and not on peculiarities.

A huge step in lexicography was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language which was published in 1755 and is based on the idea of standardising the language. The idea of correcting and purifying the language had been brought from France and Italy to England. Works of several English writers were investigated to prove the existence of a word in the English language, find various senses of words and illustrate them. Johnson’s dictionary became very successful and was edited and revised several times. It was the basis for all following dictionaries, whereof none could reach Johnson’s quality. In 1773 William Kenrick published A New Dictionary which was an improvement to Johnson’s dictionary regarding pronunciation.

In England, the beginning of the 19th century was characterised by revisions and various supplements to earlier dictionaries. However, one new and important contribution to lexicography was the idea of basing dictionaries on historical principles. Charles Richardson felt that all dictionaries, including Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, had failed in etymology. In his opinion, the etymology of a dictionary entry should show clearly the earliest meaning of a word and illustrative quotations should help to show the changes in meaning. In 1836-1837 Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes.

In the USA Noah Webster produced the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806. This work possessed a large amount of encyclopaedic material which has no connection with lexicography, like tables of the moneys, tables of weights and measures, an official list of the postoffices in the United States or the number of inhabitants in the States. This shows a clear emphasis on American issues and it is therefore not surprising that Webster laid much weight on the distinction between American and English usage. In 1828 Webster’s second dictionary An American Dictionary of the English Language came out.

During the second half of the 19th century there was an increasing interest in dialect and slang dictionaries in England but the most important step regarding lexicography was the launching of the NED.

The history of the NED

The history of the NED begins in 1857 in London, when the Philological Society launched a project to collect words which were not included in the most important dictionaries so far, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language[1]. The intention was to create a supplement to both Johnson’s and Richardson’s dictionary. An ‘Unregistered Words Committee’ was founded. The public was invited to help searching for such words.

One member of the Committee, Dr. Richard C. Trench, the then Dean of Westminster and later Archbishop of Dublin, pointed out the fact that none of the existing dictionaries were sufficient about the history of the words and that many of the older and rarer words had never been dealt with. Trench’s paper On some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, a guide to how an English dictionary ought to be, was highly welcomed by the Society but it was also recognised that Trench’s ideas could not be realised within the scope of a supplementary edition to Johnson’s and Richardson’s dictionaries. The idea of creating a completely new dictionary came up.

On January 7, 1858, the Society decided to prepare a new dictionary, which should bear this epithet in its title: The New English Dictionary[2]. The work was divided into two committees, one dealing with literary and historical facts, the other with etymology. Herbert Coleridge became the general editor. Dr. Trench could already name 76 volunteers who had promised their help. 171 works of English authors had been searched through by them and 31 contributions had already been sent in.

In 1860 Coleridge uttered his belief in publishing the first volume in about two years:

“I believe that the scheme is now firmly established, and I confidently expect ... that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number to the world. Indeed, were it not for the dilatoriness of many contributors ... I should not hesitate to name an earlier period.”
(OED II 1989, vol. I, p. xxxvii)

He was confident that about one hundred thousand slips were enough to begin the actual work of editing the dictionary[3]. In 1861 Coleridge died and Frederick J. Furnivall took over his position. Furnivall realised that much more material and time was needed than Coleridge had assumed.

Ten years passed on collecting slips and preparing the dictionary. However, no real progress had been made. The zest and enthusiasm of the first years began to ease off. In 1871 Furnivall appealed for a new editor for the dictionary but no qualified person answered to this appeal. One year later, Furnivall had to admit that “the progress in the Dictionary work has been so slight that no fresh report in detail is needed.” (OED II 1989, vol. I, p. xxxviii). Nevertheless, two important steps had taken place in the meantime: the foundation of the Early English Text Society in 1864 and the Chaucer Society in 1868. Both of them contributed important knowledge of Middle English words to the dictionary makers.

In 1876 things began to move. Dr. James Augustus Henry Murray had been asked to edit a dictionary which would be a rival to Webster’s. He only accepted under the condition that the designed dictionary was a real progress to the existing ones and asked the Philological Society for help. They sent him portions of their collected material, which Murray composed to some sample pages. However, the negotiation between Murray and the publisher came to an end. In the eyes of the publisher Murray’s specimens were too advanced and Murray was not willing to make any compromises, should the dictionary be of any value. Yet, these sample pages arose the curiosity of the Philological Society which began to become interested in its old project again.

In 1877, the Society started to look for a publisher for the intended dictionary. Murray was asked to produce some sample pages and on 26 April 1878 negotiations began between the Philological Society (including Murray) and delegates of the Clarendon Press. On 1 March 1879 Clarendon Press accepted to bear the enormous costs of completing and publishing the work under the condition of Murray being the editor. Murray received “some ton and three-quarters of materials” (OED II 1989, vol. I, p. xl) from Furnivall which he collected in blocks of pigeon-holes in his newly built ‘Scriptorium’. The material was not sufficient in Murray’s eyes and a fresh appeal was made for more voluntary readers. This appeal was very successful. By 1881, about 800 readers had been reading 4,500 books of 2,700 authors and sent in 817,625 slips with 656,900 quotations. Three years later, 3.5 million quotations from over 5,000 authors of all ages were selected by 1,500 readers. On 1 February 1884, finally, the first volume of the New English Dictionary, extending from ‘A’ to ‘ant’ could be published.

Based on the letter ‘A’ as a calculation and with the help of six assistants, Murray hoped to be able to publish the whole work within 12 years. In order to be closer to Clarendon Press, Murray and his staff moved to Oxford in 1885[4]. In the same year, the second volume, containing the words from ‘ant’ to ‘batten’ was published but it became clear that the pace needed to be accelerated. From 1888 onwards Henry Bradley, having assisted Murray in the preparation of the latter part of ‘B’, took over the editing of the letter ‘E’ and several other letters. In 1898 the NED was dedicated to Queen Victoria by permission. Three years later William Alexander Craigie and in 1914 Charles Talbut Onions began as editors as well, in order to increase the rate of progress even more. Then, several disasters slowed the pace down again. The outbreak of the Great War required the younger members of the staff, Sir James Murray (knighted in 1908) died in July 1915 and Dr. Bradley in May 1923.


[1] The Philological Society was organised in 1842 in London with the aim to „investigate the structure, affinities, and history of language.“ (Mathews 1966, p. 64)

[2] The name New English Dictionary had been chosen to show the relationship to Samuel Johnson’s English Dictionary and to indicate that it was an updated, modernised version of it.

[3] The volunteer’s contributions were sent in on slips of paper.

[4] The consequence was an oral name change: although the following volumes were still published under the old name NED, everybody was speaking about the Oxford English Dictionary. After 1895, the copies that were sent to the press contained both the old name New English Dictionary and the new one, Oxford English Dictionary on their front page. In 1933 the name change was completely done. In that year, the ten volumed NED was republished in twelve volumes under the name of Oxford English Dictionary. This is the reason why in the prefaces both of the Supplements and the OED II, the NED is usually named as ‚the first edition of the OED‘ whereas the OED II is considered as the ‚second edition‘.

To keep up a clear distinction in this paper, the term NED will be referring to the first edition of the NED, which was published in 1884-1928. OED I (or first edition of the OED) will be referring to the second edition of the NED, which was republished together with the first Supplement in 1933. OED II will be referring to the edition which was published in 1989.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The History of the Oxford English Dictionary
University of Zurich  (English Seminar)
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ISBN (eBook)
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History, Oxford, English, Dictionary
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Thomas Vetsch (Author), 2001, The History of the Oxford English Dictionary, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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