The OED: the birth of a dictionary, Part 1. Wikipedia, 19th-century style

Murray in the Scriptorium at Banbury Road, before 1910 / Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already heard the story (which Glosso is about to tell you) of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be, about the word-nerd man behind it, the role of the American public (who basically failed in their task – with one notable exception), and the even more extraordinary story of one of the dictionary’s most notorious and prolific contributors, you’ll probably think: “Oh wow, this should be made into a movie!” Well, sadly Mel Gibson beat you to it; like you, he’s good at spotting a juicy movie plot, but unlike you he’s got friends in the biz. Oh well: can’t win ’em all. Let’s hear the story of how one of the world’s oldest and most authoritative dictionaries came into being, using a kind of handwritten precursor to Wikipedia and depending on the good intentions of English-speaking readers around the world – including a schizophrenic murderous American surgeon who read a lot and knew a lot of words …

The story really begins in the middle of the 18th century – on 15 April 1755 to be exact – when Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published. Sometimes published as Johnson’s Dictionary, it was and remains among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language. It took about eight years to compile, which as you’ll see from its successor was mere peanuts in dictionary-creating terms; Johnson needed only six helpers to publish it (OED‘s helpers numbered in the hundreds); and it listed a mere 40,000 words (OED‘s first full edition boasted ten times as many). But this publication was no small feat: no English dictionary before it had devoted so much space to everyday words and had been so thorough in its definitions, illustrating the words’ usage by citing Shakespeare and other great writers. This dictionary would define the language for the next 150 years – that is, until the Oxford English Dictionary came along …

Fast forward a century, almost exactly, and we find the UK’s Philological Society learning in 1857 (from a good legit source*) about ‘Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries’. Oh dear. (This presumably referred to Johnson’s dictionary, among others, but perhaps the author of the paper wanted to avoid naming and shaming.) The events that followed this revelation and led to the creation of the modern OED are amusingly described in a document issued some 20 years later, when the construction of the new dictionary was well underway but beginning to stall; excerpts from that April 1879 Appeal take the story forward:

The Society – upon hearing about these gross deficiencies – resolved “to prepare a Supplement to the existing Dictionaries supplying these deficiencies.” However, it soon became apparent that “not a mere Dictionary-Supplement, but a new Dictionary worthy of the English Language and of the present state of Philological Science, was the object to be aimed at. Accordingly, in January 1859, the…Society issued their ‘Proposal for the publication of a New English Dictionary,’ in which the characteristics of the proposed work were explained, and an appeal made to the English and American public to assist in collecting the raw materials for the work, these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and in all senses, each quotation being made on a uniform plan on a half-sheet of notepaper, that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and significantly. This Appeal met with a generous response: some hundreds of volunteers began to read books, make quotations, and send in their slips to ‘sub-editors,’ who volunteered each to take charge of a letter or part of one, and by whom the slips were in turn further arranged, classified, and to some extent used as the basis of definitions and skeleton schemes of the meanings of words in preparation for the Dictionary.”

So the Philological Society basically invented Wikipedia-for-Dictionaries a full 142 years before the crowd-sourced internet encyclopedia made its first appearance! Who knew? But things didn’t quite go according to plan, as the 1879 Appeal continues to explain:

“After some years however, partly because the attention of many of the promoters was diverted […]; partly because there was no immediate prospect of surmounting the financial difficulties of preparing and publishing the work on the vast scale to which the accumulating materials showed it would extend; the interest of readers began to fall off and their number dwindle away, till, for some time back, the work – but for a faithful few, especially some half-dozen of the Sub-editors, who have never ceased reading and working – has been practically dead. But during the last three years the Philological Society have been earnestly trying to turn to account the vast store of material – some tons in weight – already accumulated, and they have recently succeeded in making an arrangement with the Delegates of the Clarendon Press in the University of Oxford for the preparation and publication of a Dictionary from these materials, which […] will, it is believed, be sufficient to satisfy all the requirements of present English scholarship, and to place our language lexicographically abreast of any modern tongue.”

Enter James Murray

At the time the Society was first confronted with said dictionary deficiencies, a young Scotsman named James Murray was just beginning his career as a grammar-school teacher up in the Highlands. The 20-year-old was especially interested in languages and etymology; during his teaching years he went on to write a famous article on the English language for Encyclopædia Britannica, which helped propel him to serve as president of the Philological Society in the late 1880s. To give you an idea of his extraordinary linguistic interests and accomplishments, in his letter of application for a job at the British Museum, he claimed an ‘intimate acquaintance’ with Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish and Latin, and ‘to a lesser degree’ Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects’; he explained that he was ‘tolerably familiar’ with Dutch, German and Danish. His studies of Anglo-Saxon and Mœso-Gothic had been ‘much closer’; he knew ‘a little of the Celtic’; and he was at the time ‘engaged with the Slavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian’. He had ‘sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read and cite the Old Testament and Peshito’ and to a lesser degree he knew Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic  and Phoenician. However, he didn’t get the job.

In 1878, the now quite well-known Scottish teacher was invited to Oxford to meet the Delegates of the Oxford University Press, with a view to taking on the job of editor of a vast new dictionary of the English language, which was expected to take ten years to complete and to be some 7,000 pages long, in four volumes. Less than a year after Murray’s auspicious meeting in Oxford, in early 1879, the polyglot-lexicographer was hired as the editor of the new dictionary. It would be a massive project, requiring a man of words, organization and determination to succeed. The dictionary’s construction was to be grounded in historical and descriptive principles, with each word’s definition to be accompanied by an example – including a date – of its usage. And it was to be crowd-sourced! Murray’s first task was to send out an appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public to ask for their help, again. Trigger-warning: there’s some serious American-shaming (they didn’t get their shit together) and Sub-editor-shaming (they either died or didn’t get their shit together) to come (see Glosso’s bolding).


“In order that [the Dictionary’s] progress may be certain, and that it may have that complete and representative character which has been its aim from the beginning, and be a lasting monument of our language, they want help from hundreds of readers in Great Britain, America, and the British Colonies, to finish the volunteer work so enthusiastically commenced twenty years ago, by reading and extracting the books which still remain unexamined. […] It is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed. The American scholars promised to get the eighteenth-century literature taken up in the United States, a promise which they appear not to have to any extent fulfilled, and we must now appeal to English readers to share the task, for nearly the whole of that century’s books, with the exception of Burke’s works, have still to be gone through. Special attention must be paid to the dramatic literature of the early eighteenth and late seventeenth century, as in this will be found the earliest occurrence of much of our modern phraseology, which is now good and stately English, but was familiar or colloquial a century and a half ago. A thousand readers are wanted, and confidently asked for, to complete the work as far as possible within the next three years, so that the preparation of the Dictionary may proceed upon full and complete materials. […] Through the death or failure of early Sub-editors, the materials for some Letters are in a very backward state. Any one able and willing to undertake a portion of one of these, and arrange, classify, and complete it (for the Editor’s revision), will render important service by doing so.” (From the April 1879 Appeal**)

Preparing for the mammoth task that lay before him, Murray decided to build a corrugated-iron shed – what he called a “Scriptorium” – in the grounds of the school where he taught, to house his small team of assistants as well as the flood of paper slips (bearing words and quotations) that were starting to flow in as a result of his appeal. His life’s work had just begun.

“The OED: the birth of a dictionary, Part 2: The lexicographer and the madman” follows tomorrow.


* A paper was read to the society by Archbishop Trench, then Dean of Westminster

** April 1879 Appeal; you can see the facsimile text of this second public appeal here.