Celebrating the OED in Oxford


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The Oxford English Dictionary -- OED to friends -- is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its 1928 completion next week in Oxford, England. It was begun decades earlier, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains in the entry on Sir James Murray, the OED’s first editor:

In March 1879, after a series of prolonged discussions, the Philological Society came to an agreement with the Oxford University Press concerning the editing and publication of what was now to be known as The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). After consulting several scholars, among them Frederick Furnivall, Henry Sweet, and the comparative philologist Max Müller, the delegates of the press offered the task of editing the dictionary to James Murray. He was invited to edit the material for publication in parts. It was proposed that he would be able to compile the successive fascicles with help from a small editorial staff while he was still teaching at Mill Hill School. Murray, estimating that the dictionary could be finished in ten years in an estimated 7,000 pages, accepted. In fact the first fascicle, consisting of words in the range A–Ant, was not published until 1884, and the last one in 1928, forty-four years later. (Volume publication, collating the fascicles, also took place over this span of time). In its final form the dictionary consisted of more than 16,000 pages.


Monday there will be a panel discussion, featuring author Ammon Shea (‘Reading the OED’); John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; and author Simon Winchester, whose book ‘The Professor and the Madman’ is about Murray and one of his (brilliant but unwell) contributors. Those contributors played an essential part in building the OED, which notes:

The key feature of the OED, of course, is its unique historical focus. Accompanying each definition is a chronologically arranged group of quotations that illustrate the evolution of meaning from the word’s first recorded usage and show the contexts in which it can be used. The quotations are drawn from a huge variety of sources -- literary, scholarly, technical, popular -- and represent authors as disparate as Geoffrey Chaucer and Erica Jong, William Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler, Charles Darwin and John Le Carre.

New York-based lit blogger Maud Newton was flown to England for the anniversary celebration by the OED. She’s a confessed fan, but has enough perspective to wonder what it means that it will go solely digital in the future. She’s blogging about the celebration and her trip; today she posted camera phone pics of museum finds, like a drawing by Lewis Carroll.

The anniversary celebration will continue, in one way, through the end of January: Until then, the 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, the last print edition, is on sale for $895.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

rbrwr via Flickr