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The story of the first English Dictionary

The story of the first English Dictionary

Monday 06 February 2023

You may have heard that in 2022, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “goblin mode” - a term used to describe unapologetically lazy behaviour, “in rejection of social norms”. While the current direction and role of the Oxford English Dictionary are undoubtedly different to those of many years ago, it still forms the bedrock of the English language. Today, the dictionary contains over 600,000 words - vast numbers of which are archaic and never used, and many others which are strange neologisms from the internet-age.

The story of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is a humorous affair. One which details some vast miscalculations, and the brave English spirit of doing a job properly.

It was way back in 1857 that the Philological Society of London agreed that an English Language Dictionary was required. Inspired but dissatisfied by other attempts preceding them, this “new dictionary” would be different. It would be a proper one. One which would contain every single English word. By 1879, Oxford University Press had finally agreed to take up the mantle and began the task. Their idea was to work on the dictionary for ten years and publish it in four volumes. This was perhaps a little optimistic.

139 years ago, on the 1st of February 1884, after five years of planning, hard work, research, and writing, the team from Oxford University Press published the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary.

At 352 pages, the “New English Dictionary” (as it was then called) contained all the words from A to Ant.

Evidently, there had been a small miscalculation.

It wouldn’t be until 1928 that a ten-volume version, printed to contain over 400,000 words, would be published. Another five years passed before the twelve-volume version was released, with an additional supplement added. This was called the Oxford English Dictionary.

This ‘final’ version was 44 years late, vastly over budget, and so long that it was scarcely usable. But by working thoroughly through the task, the authors had cultivated a resource, far more historically important than its counterparts like the Merriam-Webster and Collins dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary focussed deeply on preserving the history of the English language, with vast numbers of relevant historical quotations, and clear efforts to research the histories and pronunciations of individual words. This is why it is still the premier authority on the English language, and often the only reference that today’s linguistics professors are willing to trust.

In 1984, 120 typists began digitising the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. While adding no new words, it took 120 typists more than five years to produce. The printed edition of 1989 consisted of twenty sprawling volumes.

What started haphazardly as an honest effort to record all of the English words, turned into a huge historical record and account of the English language as it develops through history.

Comparing today’s version to that released almost exactly 139 years ago, we see an amazing testament to the value of going the extra mile.


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