The idea for this enormously complex dictionary was first dreamt up in the 1850s. The plan was to create a vast and comprehensive collection of English words, those from the Early Middle English period (1150) onwards, a lexicon of the language more complete than any English dictionary-maker had ever attempted.
The idea was formulated by the Philological Society, a group that investigated the structure and history of languages - from the dialects of Papuan tribes to the lingo of Australian emigrants. In 1857, recognising the gaps that existed in other English dictionaries, the society decided that a new project should examine the whole treasure trove of English words, including those that had been rejected or left unnoticed by other lexicographers.
The New English Dictionary
In 1879 an agreement was reached with Oxford University Press to begin work on a New English Dictionary. The dictionary would include lost and outmoded words as well as the newest fashionable or technical terms; it would trace the history (or etymology) of every word, showing the earliest known usage of each word, and would map how the word had shifted in meaning over time; it would show word families, pronunciations and multiple meanings; and it would search through a whole range of literature taking its quotations from texts previously thought to be insignificant. No one realised at this stage that it would be more than fifty years before the first version of the dictionary - 178 miles of type - was published.
Readers as volunteers
The dictionary's editor, James Murray, appealed to readers around the English speaking world to get involved. Eventually hundreds of volunteers were working as word detectives, scouring historical and contemporary texts to collect evidence for as many words as possible. They rummaged through literature (popular and classic), newspapers, specialist scientific or technological journals, song sheets, theatre scripts, recipe books, wills, and political documents, collecting a myriad of words and meanings. The readers sent millions of quotations to Murray, which were then checked, sorted and filed by his team of editors.
Murray corresponded regularly with a fascinating array of experts: as his daughter has recalled, in a single day Murray wrote to Kew Gardens enquiring about the origins of an exotic plant, to a quay-side merchant in Newcastle about the keels on the Tyne, to a the Astronomical Society about a constellation, to the Times regarding the first citation of the drink punch, to the chief Rabbi, and to Thomas Hardy - all in an unceasing search for the meaning and origins of words.
With thanks to the OED for kindly granting us permission to use these extracts. Find out more at OED online.