Drawing extensively on archival and other sources, a new history traces the Oxford English Dictionary from its conception in the 1850s right up to the present.

Oxford University Press, c 1880   Walton street The Oxford University Press in around 1880 on Walton Street  

By John Garth

‘It takes a curious kind of dedication to work on the Oxford English Dictionary for decades,’ says lexicographer Peter Gilliver, who has just published the authoritative history of the project. He must have a fair degree of dedication himself, having once devoted nine months exclusively to revising the colossal entry for run. (‘The short words that don’t have many letters tend to be the most difficult,’ he notes.) But that’s nothing compared to the far more solitary labours of first editor James Murray, who would put in a couple of months of 80-hour weeks when trying to finish a letter-section. After one such prodigious effort in his chilly scriptorium, Murray wrote on the slip for dziggetai (a mule-like Mongolian quadruped): ‘Here endeth D, 11pm, 24th November 1896,’ and (in Greek) ‘To God alone be glory.’ As Gilliver says, ‘You have to love your work to do something like that.’ His own book testifies to the dedication of Dictionary staff and their predecessors since the 1850s.

Oxford English DictionarySimon Winchester’s highly readable The Meaning of Everything (2003) has been ‘a great enthuser’ for interest in the OED, but Gilliver’s history ‘is the one with footnotes’. At 300,000 words, it has grown far beyond the original remit: ‘I just kept on finding things that I couldn’t not write about,’ says Gilliver (pictured right). The story, the personalities, the significance of the Dictionary, and the rich array of archive photographs all make it a thoroughly engaging book for logophiles or those interested in Oxford’s grand achievements. Its true predecessor is Caught in the Web of Words, by Elizabeth Murray, about her grandfather. Naturally this said little beyond his death in 1915, though the First Edition (begun in 1879) was not completed until 1928. When the Murray biography appeared in 1977, the four-volume Supplement was still incomplete; the 1989 Second Edition was ‘not even a twinkle in anybody’s eye’; and an online Dictionary was still inconceivable.

Gilliver himself was caught in the web of words almost casually, while on an entirely different trajectory taking a Master’s in Information Science at Sheffield in 1987. His passion for words – his parents were both language teachers and language was a favourite focus of family argument – meant he was alerted to an advert in the New Scientist which asked, ‘Do you know what a laptop is? Do you known what nuclear winter is? Would you like to define words like this for the OED?’ 

He is living proof that a good academic training in any discipline is sufficient equipment for lexicography, if accompanied by a sensitivity to nuance in language. That’s a natural aptitude, he believes: ‘Lexicographers are probably born, not made.’ But a historical sense is also required for this particular dictionary. ‘When you read a piece of text you have to be able to imagine what it’s like to read it at the time that it was written, rather than anachronistically from the present.’

Notwithstanding its scale (the Second Edition ran to 21,728 pages in 20 volumes), the quintessential feature of the Dictionary is not its comprehensiveness but its historical perspective, showing how meanings have changed across the years, with illustrative quotations from a vast corpus, and with etymologies giving word origins.

During its early years many chances conspired to save the Dictionary when it might have appeared in a greatly reduced form or not at all. ‘If OUP had realised just how costly it was going to be, would they have signed up for it? I suspect not,’ says Gilliver. ‘But after Oxford and the Press became convinced of the value of the project, in the 1890s, I don’t think they have ever lost faith in it.’The OED team collects evidence of words being used from documents including newspapers and novelsPeter Gilliver examines some of the OED’s quotation slips with his colleague Fiona McPherson

Gilliver’s book traces the Dictionary’s origins to the activities of the Philological Society in the mid-19th century, and before that to the rise of philology, the scientific study of how language has evolved. Earlier ideas of word origins had been based on haphazard observations of likeness in wordshape and sense. The editor of an 1850s prototype for the OED believed the interjection ah derived from a root meaning ‘sorrow or pain’ and was related to ache. Gilliver thinks it is a good thing that the Dictionary was not completed in the 1860s as hoped. ‘The etymologies would have been terrible. It would have had to be done again.’

The work of the Dictionary, involving consultation overseas, injected European philological expertise into the British academic bloodstream. Murray and co-editors Henry Bradley, WA Craigie and CT Onions were all trained philologists – experts not only in current mainstream English but in other languages and dialects living or dead. The Dictionary’s most famous member of staff, JRR Tolkien, got his first civilian job there straight after the First World War due to his expertise in Germanic languages such as Old Norse, Old English and Gothic – valuable for many of the words in theW section which was then being compiled.The Dictionary’s most famous member of staff, JRR Tolkien,Work by the Dictionary’s most famous member of staff, JRR Tolkien

It is thanks to an abiding interest in Tolkien that Gilliver first began researching the Dictionary’s past. Among the reams of dictionary slips in the Oxford University Press archives, he found those Tolkien wrote for walrus, waggle and wallop. That led to a 2006 book, The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, written with colleagues Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner, looking at how being a lexicographer affected Tolkien’s creative writing.

Gilliver went on to help showcase the Dictionary’s work by appearing in the BBC’s 2006–7 series Balderdash and Piffle, which invited viewers to help find early evidence for words and phrases such as codswallop, balti and something for the weekend. This TV exercise was not as new as it might seem: Gilliver’s history demonstrates how crowdsourcing, as it is now called, was always at the heart of the project. That is how an inmate of Broadmoor lunatic asylum, WC Minor, came to contribute tens of thousands of illustrative quotations to the project – a story now being filmed in Oxford by Mel Gibson, who has cast himself in the unlikely role of Murray.celebrated, Sir James A. H. MurrayCelebrated editor Sir James A. H. Murray in the scriptorium

Murray’s near-legendary talent and capacity for hard work drew Gilliver’s scepticism. ‘Yet the more I worked, the more I realised that he’s everything he’s cracked up to be.’ But probably his favourite OED character is FJ Furnivall, who did much to launch the project (as well as the Early English Text Society, the London Working Men’s College, and the Hammersmith Sculling Club). Eccentric and effervescent, Furnivall has been described by historian John Gross as ‘one of the great rock-blasting entrepreneurs of Victorian scholarship; the kind of man who, if his energies had taken another turn, might have covered a continent with railways’.

The Making of the OED revivifies many of the unsung heroes of the project too – lexicographers such as Arthur Maling (1858–1939), with whom Gilliver found several affinities: studying maths at Cambridge, playing the piano, practising Esperanto, and having a great fondness for chocolate. This last is evidenced by the existence of Dictionary slips written on chocolate wrappers brought in by Maling during the post-1918 paper shortage – ‘several different varieties: he was clearly quite catholic in his taste’.Dictionary slips written on chocolate wrappersOne of the chocolate wrappers used during the paper shortage that followed the First World War

Digitisation has introduced new and better lexicographical tools, given free home OED access for holders of UK library membership, and transformed a print monolith into what John Simpson, editor from 1993 to 2013, has described as ‘a moving document’. As Gilliver says, ‘If we publish information that can further be improved by something somebody subsequently sends us, then we can just republish it.’ But in essence, he insists, the Dictionary remains the same project it was. ‘Murray, Bradley, Craigie, Onions, Tolkien and so on would have been fascinated by the new tools we’re using, but they would have understood what we’re doing.’ The bottom line is still human expertise and the human eye. When the First Edition and Supplement text had all been entered into a database for the Second Edition, its co-editors Simpson and Edmund Weiner each proofread the lot – a task which has been likened to reading the Bible from cover to cover every week for a year.

Is the Oxford English Dictionary set to be essentially the same ‘moving document’ from now on? ‘Who’s to say?’ asks Gilliver. ‘I can’t see anything on the horizon that’s going to transform the way we work radically, but then 18 or 19 years ago when the World Wide Web was young, nobody could conceive just how web publication was going to transform the work we were doing.’

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is published by OUP at £40.

John Garth, former OT digital editor and author of Tolkien and the Great War and 2015 Fellow of Nevada’s Black Mountain Institute, is working on a further book on Tolkien.

Images:  By permission of the Secretary to the delegates of Oxford University Press, Jean Pierre de Rosnay, OUP


By Simon Boyd

The OED was of course originally proposed to Cambridge University Press which unwisely turned it down as it wouldn't be immediately profitable.

By Robert John Nicholas

I do love the OED but the Oxford American dictionary leaves much to be desired. I have gone through it from cover to cover and many of the words are unknown in America completely and I have taken a perverse pleasure in the last years asking fellow Americans if they've ever heard of these words - haven't found anyone yet that has!

By Lionel Etan-Adollo

Quite revealing and excellent work !

By Lionel Etan-Ado...

Quite revealing and excellent work !

By Ed Parker

I have always been interested in words and how their meanings change and evolve. One thing that really intrigues me is how words frequently begun their journey by going down the path of etymology, but then came to be shaped in the crucible of the hurly burly of everyday life and existence.

What an amazing resource the Oxford English Dictionary is!

By Timothy Keates

The university faculty where I used to teach bought the 20 volumes of the OED in 1989. I go there when I need to consult it, and find myself happily wandering through all manner of words, their derivations, their first recorded instances — all too often forgetting about the particular word I intended to seek. An entertainment!

By Timothy Keates

The university faculty where I used to teach bought the 20 volumes of the OED in 1989. I go there when I need to consult it, and find myself happily wandering through all manner of words, their derivations, their first recorded instances — all too often forgetting about the particular word I intended to seek. An entertainment!

By Jay I G Roland

Having read every other book relating to the OED I just had to buy this one. It arrived this morning and I shall be tucking into it this evening.

Published (obviously) by the OUP it is very well bound and printed on quality paper, just as one would expect.

I am a proud possessor of the 20 volume 2nd edition plus I also have the first edition (as the 'New English Dictionary') beautifully bound in 13 huge leather tomes and made up from the original fascicles as and when they were published, a true treasure to own.