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The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Peter Gilliver

oedThe OED.

There can’t be many publications which are routinely referred to just by their initials, and it’s a measure of the stature of the Oxford English Dictionary that those three initials are so universally recognized they’ve become part of our verbal shorthand.

Behind them lies such an extraordinary story of genius, obsession and sheer bloody-mindedness that it’s very easy to forget we’re talking about a dictionary. A reference work. A dispassionate record and analysis of the English language as spoken and written (and frequently mangled) over several centuries by those who use it to communicate with each other and the world at large.

The lexicographer and Associate Editor of the OED, Peter Gilliver, is the ideal man to tell the story, having worked on the dictionary since the 1980s. There have been other, more populist, books about the birth of the OED – Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything being pre-eminent among them – but there has never been one as detailed and exhaustive as Gilliver’s painstaking and scholarly account of the OED’s journey from the its very beginnings at The Philological Society of London in the 1850s to its present on-line manifestation.

The basic story is reasonably well known and fairly straightforward: the decision was taken to create a dictionary of the English language ‘on historical principles’ and in 1879 the remarkable but ever-so-slightly-eccentric Scot,  James Murray, was engaged to undertake and oversee the task. His original contract was for ten years, because that was how long it was believed the job would take, but by the time the first part of the dictionary – A to Ant – was finally published in 1884, it had already become obvious that the creation of a definitive (or at least as nearly definitive as possible) dictionary was going to take very much longer – and far more manpower – than anyone had ever dreamed.

In due course, Murray was joined (somewhat against his will) by three more editors – Henry Bradley, W A Craigie and C T Onions – and although this speeded the process up, Murray was not destined to live long enough to see the final volume published in 1928.  After dedicating over 35 years of his life to the dictionary, sometimes working 80 hour weeks and until eleven o’clock at night, he died in 1915 having, fittingly, just completed work on the word ‘twilight’.

The problem was that no-one had ever undertaken such a task before. This was not going to be just a book in which people could look up the meaning and spelling of words; the OED was intended as a detailed record of every word in the English language, with not only word meanings but also their etymologies, histories, derivatives, pronunciations and usages, with quotations from books and newspaper to illustrate those usages. Progress frequently ground to a near halt over apparently simple words like the verb ‘to be’. The vast swathe of words carrying the prefix ‘un’ very nearly felled them completely, and experts had to be drafted to deal with scientific terms and the more specialized areas of language. One of the dictionary’s best known specialist draftees  was J R R Tolkien, who was employed directly from serving in the First World War to work on the letter ‘W’, where his knowledge of Germanic languages like Old Norse and Gothic proved invaluable.

Throughout its history the OED has been supplied with words and quotations by an army of ‘readers’ sending in new coinages, along with illustrative quotations. Some of the OED’s ‘civilian’ collaborators have been colourful characters in their own right and the story of one of the most famous of them, Dr W C Minor, is related in Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. The profoundly disturbed American Civil War veteran William Chester Minor was a prodigious and meticulous source of quotations, from mainly 16th and 17th century sources, all sent from his cell in Broadmoor, where he was serving a life sentence for murder – but he was not alone, and Gilliver introduces us to many of the other contributors who played such an important part in the creation of the dictionary.

And all the time, as the ever-changing cast of characters was labouring through the alphabet, new words were appearing in the language. The longer the compilation of the dictionary took, the more inevitable it became that there would have to be a supplement for the new words.

When the first edition of the dictionary was finally completed, it occupied ten volumes – which was six volumes more than the original estimate – but the quantity of new material was such that work on the supplement began almost immediately. It eventually appeared in 1933.

As the 20th century progressed, new words began to enter the language so rapidly that the earlier parts of the original OED – published at the end of the 19th century – were in danger of becoming obsolete. In 1957, under a new Editor, Robert Burchfield, work began on a second supplement which would eventually be published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986. By that time, the computer age had well and truly arrived, aiding the decision to integrate  – both electronically and manually – the two supplements into the first edition of the OED and create a second edition, which was eventually published to great fanfare and critical acclaim, in 1989. It occupied twenty volumes and four feet of shelf space, but was also available on CD-ROM – and the  success of that CD-ROM was instrumental in propelling the OED along its present course. The modern day dictionary staff are now working on the third edition – exclusively online. Although its abridged offspring like the Concise Oxford Dictionary will doubtless continue to be printed for the foreseeable future, the OED itself may never again take concrete form.

The English language is forever in flux. However much some people would like to see it set in aspic  and never change again, its ability to morph and reinvent itself – to absorb words from the world around it – is what keeps it vibrant and alive. That perpetual linguistic motion means that the OED will never be finished, and never be definitive. It’s always going to be a work in progress.

Although it was originally intended as a profitable enterprise, the OED itself has never made any money, and almost certainly never will – and if the Philological Society of London had realized how much it was going to cost, and how long it was going to take to produce, they would probably never have given the project the green light in the first place.

It almost died several times, mired in disagreements, intractable sections of the alphabet and world conflict –  but its importance as a part of English culture is such that, for the moment at least, its future is secure.

It took Peter Gilliver thirteen years to write The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The more he researched, the more fascinating detail he found and the less he could bear to leave out. This is no ‘light read’: it’s a good, old-fashioned and weighty book which pays you the compliment of assuming that you’re both interested in the subject and reasonably literate. Contained in its 625 closely printed pages is a story which leaves you mentally breathless by the time you arrive at the end. All of human existence is here – life, death, birth, war, madness – much of it contained in the wonderful footnotes, which sometimes occupy as much of the page as the text does.

I couldn’t, in all honesty, recommend this to the casually-interested reader, but if you’re genuinely interested in the English language, and enjoy your linguistic history leavened with quirky details and a touch of dry humour, it’s a book which any true language-lover should have on their shelf.

Oxford University Press. 2016. ISBN: 978-0-19-928362-0. 625pp.

5 comments on “The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Peter Gilliver

  1. The Story Reading Ape
    December 10, 2016

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Fascinating!

  2. Flavia
    December 12, 2016

    Very expensive; hopefully there’ll be a paperback version in due course.

  3. Moira
    December 12, 2016

    It IS pretty pricey at the moment Flavia … due to size and quality … but I’d be very surprised if the OUP didn’t issue a PB version fairly shortly.

  4. Matthew Wright
    December 14, 2016

    It does look like a great read. I think there is little doubt that the story of the OED is itself an integral part of the story of the evolution, cultural place and use of English as a language. Wonderful stuff.

  5. postcardsedge
    February 8, 2017

    I read this book and enjoyed it tremendously. Highly recommend it.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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