The origins of the Oxford Dictionary

In my last blog I spoke about Noah Webster and how he reformed parts of the English language in his Webster’s dictionary. Now, let’s take a look at what is considered today’s most comprehensive and accurate dictionary, which originated across the sea.

It all began back in 1857 when members of the Philological Society of London decided it was time to re-examine the English language and create a completed and up-to-date collection of words that ranged from the Anglo-Saxon period up to the present.

They later joined the Oxford University Press and James A.H Murray, a Scottish philologist who would become the dictionary’s editor. The intention was to trace the etymology of every word and show how it had evolved in time, as well as its pronunciations and various meanings. In order to acquire large volumes of information, help was provided by volunteers who investigated words in historical and contemporary texts that would then be checked and filed by Murray’s team.

Initially, the group thought it would only take them 10 years but progress was a lot slower than that and 40 years later they began publishing “fascicles” under the name A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

The first volume, published in 1928, contained over 400,000 words and phrases containing a detailed history of every word and quotations from a wide range of sources. It was spread out in ten volumes, and because language is constantly evolving, its editors continued making changes soon after it was published. With these new supplements, the dictionary consisted of a total of 12 volumes and was renamed The Oxford English Dictionary. The second and final edition was published in 1989.

An online version has been available since 2000. Today the OED is the definitive authority on the use and pronunciation of English language words.