Like Wikipedia, Oxford English Dictionary Was Built by Amateur Volunteers

(p. 70) The venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the history of which is masterfully documented by Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman, was in fact possible only through the soliciting of contributions, and the receipt of thousands of “slips” of paper, each with words and definitions found by readers and volunteers.

The OED didn’t start out with such a grand title, and was first a project of the Philological Society in Great Britian (sic), as a response to what they saw as the popular dictionaries of Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson not doing the “English language justice.” In 1857, it was started as the Unregistered Words Committee, and the job was to comb through all forms of media of the era (printed matter, song, spoken word) leading to the inventorying and cataloging of English words. The three founders, Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, sent out a notice in November of that year: “AN APPEAL TO THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING AND ENGLISH-READING PUBLIC TO READ BOOKS AND MAKE EXTRACTS FOR THE PHILOLOGICAL SOCIETY’S NEW ENGLISH DICTIONARY.” Specifically, it described the project thusly:

Accordingly, in January 1859. the Society issued their Proposal for the publication of a New English Dictionary, in which the characteristics of the proposed work were explained, and an appeal made to the English and American public to assist in collecting the raw materials for the work, these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and in all senses, each quotation being made on a uniform plan on a half-sheet of notepaper that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and significantly. This Appeal met with generous response: some hundreds of volunteers began to read books, make quotations and send in their slips to “sub-editors who volunteered each to take charge of a letter or part of one, and by whom the slips were in turn further arranged, classified, and (p. 71) to some extent used as the basis of definitions and skeleton schemes of the meanings of words in preparation for the Dictionary.

The notice was sent to “bookshops and libraries across the English-speaking world” and, under the direction of Scottish lexicographer James Murray, saw its growth blossom. In 1879, Oxford University Press formally agreed to be publisher and employed Murray to take on the editorship. Slips sent in to the effort were filed away in pigeonholes at the Scriptorium, a corrugated metal building Mill Hill School erected specifically for the effort of sorting and housing the staff to work on the dictionary.

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.
(Note: italics and caps in original.)

The block quote within the Lih block quote is from p. 108 of:
Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. paperback ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *