Thursday, January 30, 2014

Word Odyssey: The Saga of the Oxford English Dictionary

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 9:00 AM

  • Image courtesy of Shutterstock

On February 1, 1884, the first fascicle, or volume, of one of the world’s greatest literary achievements was published: the Oxford English Dictionary, affectionately known as the OED. I’m not talking about the collegiate or other abridged versions of the OED, but rather the version completed in 1928 consisting of twelve hefty volumes and over 400,000 words—and not just words then in use, but all the obsolete English words too. Awesome. In honor of that anniversary, today’s column is devoted to the making of the OED.

The idea for this monumental work was conceived by Richard Trench, a philologist who later became the Dean of Westminster Abbey. In 1857, Trench proposed to the English Philological Society the making of a dictionary containing all English words—and not just those then in use, but all obsolete words as well. And all senses of every word, with the etymology of each word, backed up by quotes from English literature.

When jaws dropped at the enormity of the task, Trench suggested that the only way to do it was to invite volunteers from around the globe to scour the literature and submit quotes illustrating word usages, going as far back in time as possible.

The project commenced in 1860 in conjunction with the University of Oxford press. Volunteers soon began submitting slips of paper with quotes, but funding and leadership problems plagued the project, until finally in 1879 they hired an editor named James Murray. What an astounding man. Despite having to leave school at fourteen years of age, by thirty Murray was fluent in dozens of world languages, learning them in his spare time from his job as bank clerk and school teacher. The Oxford dons recognized his genius and gave him the reins. Murray quickly catalogued the two million slips that had been received from volunteers, sent out a call for more volunteers, set up a method for tracking the vast quantities of information, and finally got the dictionary off the ground. He estimated that it would take ten years to complete it. It wound up taking forty-nine.

The first volume was completed in 1884, covering 8,365 words—A through Ant—one-third of which were obsolete. Murray didn’t live to see the OED completed, which didn’t happen until 1928. The last word of the final volume? It was zyxt, an obsolete word in the Kentish dialect for the past participle of “to see”. Because so many words had been added to the English language during the making of the OED, an 867 page supplement was published five years later.

Which book did the original OED quote most often? That would be the Bible, if you count its many different English translations. Otherwise, it’s a book you probably haven’t heard of: Cursor Mundi, written in Middle English around 1300 A.D. by an unknown cleric as a 30,000 line poem about the history of the world as told in the Bible. Cursor Mundi turned out to be a treasure of old and obsolete words and quotes. The most quoted author was none other than William Shakespeare. The longest single entry was the word set, which had 430 different senses and took 60,000 words to describe. J.R.R. Tolkien, who later authored Lord of the Rings, did the etymological research on waggle through warlock, which seems entirely apt.

Two of the key volunteer contributors were mad Americans. Due to insanity, Dr. William Minor was discharged from his post as an Army surgeon, went to London to recuperate, killed a man in a fit of paranoia, and was sent to the Broadmoor Asylum for Criminal Lunatics. Dr. Minor filled his thirty years at the Asylum by combing literature for words and suitable quotes for Dr. Murray, but Minor eventually cut off his penis and could do no more work. Another American, Fitzedward Hall, shipwrecked in the Bay of Bengal, found his way to Calcutta, and promptly absorbed Hindustani, Bengali, Sanskrit and Persian. He later became a professor at Oxford, but got the boot after a row with a fellow philologist, then lived out his life as a recluse and, for thirty-two years, faithfully sent his quotation slips to Dr. Murray.

In 1989, Oxford published a twenty volume second edition of the OED, containing 615,000 words and 2.4 million quotes, filling almost 22,000 pages. Fortunately, the OED is now conveniently online, at Two of the most recently added words are buzzworthy and bucket list.

That should feed your inner nerd for today.

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