Examining the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most famous dictionaries in the world, is widely regarded as the last word on the meaning of words in English.

It is also a symbol of the cultural importance of the English language, both nationally and internationally. Huge shifts have taken place in English language and culture over the last 100 years and these have had their counterpart in the dictionary too. On the one hand, it has been embracing the electronic revolution, and on the other, it has been grappling with changes in the use and perception both of the English language and of the English and British nation.

Now usually referred to simply as “the OED”, the first edition of the dictionary (slowly released over 1884-1928) began life as a monument of the Victorian and early Edwardian era. It introduced a revolutionary new method to English language lexicography, obvious to us now but pathbreaking then, basing its definitions on real examples of language use. Thousands of texts of all types and periods were read through by the lexicographers and their hundreds of volunteer readers to try to identify when every word in the language had first been used, and how its use had subsequently developed. The idea was, as the first editor put it, to make “every word … tell its own story, the story of its birth and life, and in many cases of its death, and even occasionally of its resuscitation”. Five million quotations of textual evidence were amassed in this way, of which nearly two million were printed in the OED itself.

As anyone who has leafed through the pages of the OED knows, these quotations not only supply essential evidence of the use of vocabulary in English through the centuries but also furnish a national history – of sorts. In many cases, the most quoted sources were the ones high up in the Victorian canon. Great writers like Shakespeare and Chaucer, Milton and Dryden, rub shoulders with sources such as the Bible and with widely recognized “thinkers” (Bacon, Macaulay, Carlyle).

It’s easy now to see that these names reflect cultural not just linguistic choices. Many were poets; all were male. It is also easy to see the cultural biases in other features of the original OED, especially where vocabulary relating to race, gender, sexuality, religion and class were concerned. Unsurprisingly, the dictionary reflected the values (white, male-dominated, Anglo-centric, heterosexual) of its own time and place.

Towards the end of the last century, despite two updating supplements merged with the original dictionary into a so-called second edition (1989), these features were becoming troublesome. Wholesale revision was required to treat vocabulary and definitions formerly regarded as unproblematic, for example language reflecting homophobic or racist views. In 2000, a freshly assembled staff of 60 lexicographers launched an ambitious revision of the entire dictionary here in Oxford. Starting in the middle of the alphabet with the letter M, they have since released tranches of revised and entirely new vocabulary every quarter. The revision – which now dots around the alphabet – is about half-way through, while thousands of new words and senses have been added (e.g. BrexitCOVID-19, social distancing).

My research on the history of the editing of OED is recorded on “Examining the OED”, a website created by Hertford alumnus Christopher Whalen and re-launched in a new and revised version in October last year. What most interests me is whether those literary giants of the first edition are being toppled from their perch. Were they really so influential in the history of the English language? Frustratingly, it is difficult to work this out, as the website doesn’t allow users to distinguish between revised and unrevised entries. However, some new features are clearly emerging, such as the revision’s intensive searching of electronic databases of English language newspapers and journals over the last two hundred years, one way to balance out all those canonical literary quotations. Disappointingly, it looks to me as if the lexicographers are still significantly underquoting female-authored sources, something I am just turning to in a new stage of research. Do have a look at the website to see how far I’ve got.

Cover image: Box of OED quotation slips (Owen Massey McKnight via Flickr)

Charlotte Brewer is Professor of English Language & Literature and a Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College. For the last two decades, her research has focused on the history and editing of the OED, from its beginnings in the late 1850s up to and including the online version.


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