The Oxford English Dictionary

How are dictionaries created? How do people collect all these words and make sure they don’t forget any? These are the types of questions that led me to read Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything (also, it was a birthday present and it’s rude not to read books nice people give you).
It tells the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a real monument, a major reference for the English language. It was created from the work of thousands of volunteers, who read most of the books and written work published at the time to send examples of words and of their use, quotation slips which were arranged and organised by the various editors, and form the main part of the dictionary.
I thought I’d just give you a few facts and figures:

  • The work started on 12 May 1860, and most of those involved thought it would take a few years to complete. In the end, it took 68 years and 3 weeks of intense work.
  • You think that’s a long time: the Dutch dictionary known as Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal was started in 1851 and completed in 1998.
  • It goes from a to zyxt.
  • The first editor had pigeon-holes built to house the 100,000 quotations he thought would be used. All in all, they used 6 million, all sent by volunteer readers.
  • They thought the dictionary would have 7,000 pages; it ended up with 15,490 pages.
  • The cost was thought to amount to £9,000; the final price was £300,000
  • It contains 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations (selected from 5 million)
  • James C. Gilbert joined the press as an apprentice in 1882 and started working on A. 46 years later, he was there when the final words (starting in W) were set.
  • There are two personal quotations: James Murray was working on the word arrival when his ninth child was born, so he inserted the sentence "the new arrival is a little daughter". He had welcomed the arrival of another daughter during letter A with "as fine a child as you will see".
  • The word black took three months of non-stop work.
  • B was one of the most difficult letters.
  • S contains by far the largest number of entries, followed by C. The smallest sections are X, Z, Y, Q, K, J, N, U and V.
  • One of the main contributors to the dictionary was W.C. Minor, who was working from an asylum for criminal lunatics in Broadmoor where he was serving a life sentence for murder.
  • John Ronal Reuel Tolkien worked for one year as an assistant on the dictionary, in 1919. He worked on warm, wasp, water, wick, wallop and winter, as well as walnut, wampum and walrus.
By | 2016-10-18T15:50:49+00:00 September 22nd, 2005|Language|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Xavier Kreiss September 23, 2005 at 11:29 am

    I’ll certainly be getting this as soon as it comes out in paperback.
    I loved Simon Winchester’s previous book on the subject, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”, about the people who helped James Murray in the colossal task of drawing up this first edition of the OED.
    One of these characters was an American doctor, William Chester Minor, who’d been a field medic during the civil war in his country, before coming over to live in the UK. He was an astonishingly well-read man, a tireless and meticulous worker – ideal traits for the task.
    He only had one fault: he was barking mad, and a murderer. He worked from a book-lined cell in Broadmoor. Ah, well… nobody’s perfect.
    More on him, and on the OED, can be found in this site, which gives an enormous amount of details – see, for instance, the interview of SImon Winchester.
    And fans of another good doctor – Johnson, this time – might already know that an abbridged verssion of his monumental dictionary has recently been re-edited.
    For anyone still unfamiliar with the Great Cham’s highly idiosyncratic style, here’s the most famous entry of all:
    OATS. n.s. [a_en, Saxon.] A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
    Mmm… could Chirac have been right after all about British cuisine?

  2. Nic October 9, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    Two years ago I read “The Professor and the Madman”, which I found fascinating. I was astonished by the letter Murray sent to the British Museum to apply for a job (the quotation is on my blog). He claims that he knows dozens of languages, and I am pretty sure he did. However the British Museum turned down his application. It was all for the best!

Comments are closed.