|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
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