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Significant Scots
Dr James Murray


The Oxford English Dictionary has been the last word on words for over a century. But, as with a respected professor or admired parent, we count on its wisdom and authority without thinking much about how it was acquired. What is the history of the Oxford English Dictionary? Exploring its origins and development will give new insight into this extraordinary, living document.

How it began

When the members of the Philological Society of London decided, in 1857, that existing English language dictionaries were incomplete and deficient, and called for a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times onward, they knew they were embarking on an ambitious project. However, even they didn't realize the full extent of the work they initiated, or how long it would take to achieve the final result.

The project proceeded slowly after the Society's first grand statement of purpose. Eventually, in 1879, the Society made an agreement with the Oxford University Press and James A. H. Murray to begin work on a New English Dictionary (as the Oxford English Dictionary was then known).

More Work Than They Thought

The new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would include all English language vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 AD) onward, plus some earlier words if they had continued to be used into Middle English.

It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. Five years down the road, when Murray and his colleagues had only reached as far as the word "ant", they realized it was time to reconsider their schedule. It was not surprising that the project was taking longer than anticipated. Not only are the complexities of the English language formidable, but it also never stops evolving. Murray and his Dictionary colleagues had to keep track of new words and new meanings of existing words at the same time that they were trying to examine the previous seven centuries of the language's development.

Murray and his team did manage to publish the first part (or "fascicle", to use the technical term) in 1884, but it was clear by this point that a much more comprehensive work was required than had been imagined by the Philological Society almost thirty years earlier.

One Step at a Time

Over the next four decades work on the Dictionary continued and new editors joined the project. Murray now had a large team directed by himself, Henry Bradley, W.A. Craigie, and C.T. Onions. These men worked steadily, producing fascicle after fascicle until finally, in April, 1928, the last volume was published. Instead of 6,400 pages in four volumes, the Dictionary published under the imposing name A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles - contained over 400,000 words and phrases in ten volumes. Sadly, Murray did not live to see the completion of his great work; he died in 1915. The work to which he had devoted his life represented an achievement unprecedented in the history of publishing anywhere in the world. The Dictionary had taken its place as the ultimate authority on the language.

Murray was born in 1827 in Denholm (between Hawick and Jedburgh) in the lovely Scottish Border country. For two decades Murray had rapport and respect for an American doctor living in England, Dr. W.C. Minor, who offered his assistance in the gigantic undertaking of defining words. Murray welcomed co-operation from the doctor who conscientiously examined and proposed definitions for the dictionary, and then mailed them to Dr. Murray on notepaper with the heading of ‘Broadmoor.’ Murray never questioned the name of ‘Broadmoor’ assuming it to be an estate in the rolling English countryside. Actually, it was a hospital for the criminally insane, where Minor had been an inmate ever since killing a stranger in London.

Oxford English Dictionary


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