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Oxford English Dictionary

1879

Oxford English Dictionary

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  • Intro

    In 1879 an agreement was reached with Oxford University Press to begin work on a revolutionary New English Dictionary. 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 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; and it would search through a whole range of texts, taking its quotations from sources previously thought to be insignificant such as song lyrics or slang. Fifty years later the first version of the dictionary - 178 miles of type - was published.

     

    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. The archive box shown here contains quotations for words beginning with the letter M in the range miler to mischief.

     

    Archive box of quotation slips, late 19th/early 20th century.

    On loan from Oxford University Press Archives.

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