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Despite its considerable size, the OED is neither the world's largest nor the earliest exhaustive dictionary of a language. Another earlier large dictionary is the Grimm brothers ' dictionary of the German language , begun in and completed in The Kangxi dictionary of Chinese was published in The dictionary began as a Philological Society project of a small group of intellectuals in London and unconnected to Oxford University : [15] : —4, Richard Chenevix Trench , Herbert Coleridge , and Frederick Furnivall , who were dissatisfied with the existing English dictionaries.

The Society expressed interest in compiling a new dictionary as early as , [16] but it was not until June that they began by forming an "Unregistered Words Committee" to search for words that were unlisted or poorly defined in current dictionaries. In November, Trench's report was not a list of unregistered words; instead, it was the study On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries , which identified seven distinct shortcomings in contemporary dictionaries: [17].

The Society ultimately realized that the number of unlisted words would be far more than the number of words in the English dictionaries of the 19th century, and shifted their idea from covering only words that were not already in English dictionaries to a larger project. Trench suggested that a new, truly comprehensive dictionary was needed. On 7 January , the Society formally adopted the idea of a comprehensive new dictionary.

Richard Chenevix Trench — played the key role in the project's first months, but his appointment as Dean of Westminster meant that he could not give the dictionary project the time that it required. He withdrew and Herbert Coleridge became the first editor. On 12 May , Coleridge's dictionary plan was published and research was started.

His house was the first editorial office.


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He arrayed , quotation slips in a 54 pigeon-hole grid. Furnivall thence became editor; he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but temperamentally ill-suited for the work. Furthermore, many of the slips were misplaced. Furnivall believed that, since many printed texts from earlier centuries were not readily available, it would be impossible for volunteers to efficiently locate the quotations that the dictionary needed. As a result, he founded the Early English Text Society in and the Chaucer Society in to publish old manuscripts.

Furnivall recruited more than volunteers to read these texts and record quotations. While enthusiastic, the volunteers were not well trained and often made inconsistent and arbitrary selections. Ultimately, Furnivall handed over nearly two tons of quotation slips and other materials to his successor.


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In the s, Furnivall unsuccessfully attempted to recruit both Henry Sweet and Henry Nicol to succeed him. He then approached James Murray , who accepted the post of editor.


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  • In the late s, Furnivall and Murray met with several publishers about publishing the dictionary. In , Oxford University Press agreed with Murray to proceed with the massive project; the agreement was formalized the following year. It was another 50 years before the entire dictionary was complete. Late in his editorship, Murray learned that a prolific reader named W.

    Minor was a criminal lunatic.

    Minor invented his own quotation-tracking system, allowing him to submit slips on specific words in response to editors' requests. During the s, the Philological Society was concerned with the process of publishing a dictionary with such an immense scope. The OUP finally agreed in after two years of negotiating by Sweet, Furnivall, and Murray to publish the dictionary and to pay Murray, who was both the editor and the Philological Society president. The dictionary was to be published as interval fascicles, with the final form in four volumes, totalling 6, pages.

    They hoped to finish the project in ten years. Murray started the project, working in a corrugated iron outbuilding called the " Scriptorium " which was lined with wooden planks, book shelves, and 1, pigeon-holes for the quotation slips.

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    For instance, there were ten times as many quotations for abusion as for abuse. The first dictionary fascicle was published on 1 February —twenty-three years after Coleridge's sample pages. The OUP saw that it would take too long to complete the work with unrevised editorial arrangements.

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    Accordingly, new assistants were hired and two new demands were made on Murray. Murray had his Scriptorium re-erected on his new property. Murray resisted the second demand: that if he could not meet schedule, he must hire a second, senior editor to work in parallel to him, outside his supervision, on words from elsewhere in the alphabet. Murray did not want to share the work, feeling that he would accelerate his work pace with experience. In , Bradley moved to Oxford University. Gell continued harassing Murray and Bradley with his business concerns—containing costs and speeding production—to the point where the project's collapse seemed likely.

    Newspapers reported the harassment, particularly the Saturday Review , and public opinion backed the editors. If the editors felt that the dictionary would have to grow larger, it would; it was an important work, and worth the time and money to properly finish. Neither Murray nor Bradley lived to see it.

    By then, two additional editors had been promoted from assistant work to independent work, continuing without much trouble. In —, J. By early , a total of 11 fascicles had been published, or about one per year: four for A—B , five for C , and two for E. At this point, it was decided to publish the work in smaller and more frequent instalments; once every three months beginning in there would be a fascicle of 64 pages, priced at 2s 6d.

    If enough material was ready, or even pages would be published together. This pace was maintained until World War I forced reductions in staff.

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    It then appeared only on the outer covers of the fascicles; the original title was still the official one and was used everywhere else. The th and last fascicle covered words from Wise to the end of W and was published on 19 April , and the full dictionary in bound volumes followed immediately.

    George Eliot Mary Ann Evans is the most-quoted female writer. Collectively, the Bible is the most-quoted work but in many different translations ; the most-quoted single work is Cursor Mundi. Additional material for a given letter range continued to be gathered after the corresponding fascicle was printed, with a view towards inclusion in a supplement or revised edition.

    A one-volume supplement of such material was published in , with entries weighted towards the start of the alphabet where the fascicles were decades old. Also in the original fascicles of the entire dictionary were re-issued, bound into 12 volumes, under the title " The Oxford English Dictionary ". In , Oxford had finally put the dictionary to rest; all work ended, and the quotation slips went into storage.

    However, the English language continued to change and, by the time 20 years had passed, the dictionary was outdated. There were three possible ways to update it. The cheapest would have been to leave the existing work alone and simply compile a new supplement of perhaps one or two volumes; but then anyone looking for a word or sense and unsure of its age would have to look in three different places.

    The most convenient choice for the user would have been for the entire dictionary to be re-edited and retypeset , with each change included in its proper alphabetical place; but this would have been the most expensive option, with perhaps 15 volumes required to be produced.

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    The OUP chose a middle approach: combining the new material with the existing supplement to form a larger replacement supplement. Robert Burchfield was hired in to edit the second supplement; [31] Onions turned 84 that year but was still able to make some contributions as well. The work on the supplement was expected to take about seven years. They were published in , , , and respectively, bringing the complete dictionary to 16 volumes, or 17 counting the first supplement. Burchfield emphasized the inclusion of modern-day language and, through the supplement, the dictionary was expanded to include a wealth of new words from the burgeoning fields of science and technology, as well as popular culture and colloquial speech.

    Burchfield said that he broadened the scope to include developments of the language in English-speaking regions beyond the United Kingdom , including North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean. Burchfield also removed, for unknown reasons, many entries that had been added to the supplement.

    Some of these had only a single recorded usage, but many had multiple recorded citations, and it ran against what was thought to be the established OED editorial practice and a perception that he had opened up the dictionary to "World English". This was published in at dollars. There were changes in the arrangement of the volumes - for example volume 7 covered only N-Poy, the remaining "P" entries being transferred to volume 8.

    By the time the new supplement was completed, it was clear that the full text of the dictionary would need to be computerized. Preparation for this process began in , and editorial work started the following year under the administrative direction of Timothy J. Benbow, with John A. Simpson and Edmund S.

    Weiner as co-editors.

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