As of 30 November 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary contained about 301,100 main entries. Supplementing the entry headwords, there are 157,000 bold-type combinations and derivatives; 169,000 italicized-bold phrases and combinations; 616,500 word-forms in total, including 137,000 pronunciations; 249,300 etymologies; 577,000 cross-references; and 2,412,400 usage quotations. The dictionary's latest, complete print edition (Second Edition, 1989) was printed in 20 volumes, comprising 291,500 entries in 21,730 pages.
The OED's official policy attempted to record a word's most-known usages and variants in all varieties of English past and present, world-wide. Per the 1933 Preface:
The OED is the focus of much scholarly work about English words. Its headword variant spellings order list influences written English in Anglophone countries.
At first, the dictionary was unconnected to Oxford University; it originally was a Philological Society project conceived in London by Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, who were dissatisfied with the current English dictionaries. In June 1857, they formed an "Unregistered Words Committee" to search for unlisted and undefined words lacking in current dictionaries. In November, Trench's report was not a list of unregistered words; instead, it was the study On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, which identified seven distinct shortcomings in contemporary dictionaries:
Trench suggested that a new, truly comprehensive dictionary was needed. Volunteer readers would copy to quotation slips passages illustrating actual word usages, then post them to the dictionary editor. In 1858, the Society agreed to the project in principle, with the title "A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles" (NED).
Trench played the key role in the project's first months, but his ecclesiastical career meant that he could not give the dictionary project the time required, easily ten years; he withdrew, and Herbert Coleridge became the first editor.
On 12 May 1860, Coleridge's dictionary plan was published, and research started. His house was the first editorial office. He arrayed 100,000 quotation slips in a 54-pigeon-hole grid. In April 1861, the group published the first sample pages; later that month, the thirty-one-year old Coleridge died of tuberculosis.
Furnivall then became editor; he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, yet temperamentally ill-suited for the work. Recruited assistants handled two tons of quotation slips and other materials. Furnivall understood the need for an efficient excerpting system, and instituted several prefatory projects. In 1864, he founded the Early English Text Society, and in 1865, he founded the Chaucer Society for preparing general benefit editions of immediate value to the dictionary project. The compilation lasted 21 years.
In the 1870s, Furnivall unsuccessfully recruited both Henry Sweet and Henry Nicol to succeed him. He then approached James Murray, who accepted the post of editor. Murray's effort and association with the dictionary led the Oxford English Dictionary to be dubbed Murray's Dictionary.
Despite the participation of some 800 volunteer readers, the technology of paper-and-ink was the major drawback regarding the arbitrary choices of relatively untrained volunteers about "what to read and select" and "what to discard." A prolific contributor, W. C. Minor, Murray would learn much later during his editorship of the dictionary, was an inmate of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. As months and years elapsed, the project languished. Furnivall lost track of assistants; some presumed the project abandoned; some died, their quotation slips unreturned to the editor. Later, the letter "H" quotation slips sack was found in Tuscany; others slips were burned as waste paper tinder.
Simultaneously, the Philological Society was concerned with the process of publishing such an immense book. Although they had pages printed by publishers, no publication agreement was reached; both the Cambridge University Press and the Oxford University Press were approached. Finally, in 1879, after two years' negotiating by Sweet, Furnivall, and Murray, the OUP agreed to publish the dictionary and to pay the editor, Murray, who was also the Philological Society president. The dictionary was to be published as interval fascicles, with the final form in four 6,400-page volumes. They hoped to finish the project in ten years.
Murray started the project, ably tackling its true scale. He chose to work in a corrugated iron outbuilding, the "Scriptorium", which was lined with wooden planks, book shelves, and 1,029 pigeon-holes for the quotation slips. Murray now tracked and regathered Furnivall's collection of quotation slips, finding them inadequate. Readers had tended to concentrate on rare, interesting words rather than common usages: for instance, there were ten times more quotations for abusion than for abuse. He appealed for readers in newspapers distributed to bookshops and libraries; readers were specifically asked to report "as many quotations as you can for ordinary words" and for words that were "rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way." Murray had American philologist and liberal-arts-college professor Francis March manage the collection in North America; 1,000 quotation slips arrived daily to the Scriptorium, and by 1882, there were 3,500,000.
The first Dictionary fascicle was published on 1 February 1884 — twenty-three years after Coleridge's sample pages. The full title was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society; the 352-page volume, words from A to Ant, cost 12s.6d or U.S.$3.25. The total sales were a disappointing 4,000 copies.
The OUP saw it would take too long to complete the work with unrevised editorial arrangements. Accordingly, new assistants were hired and two new demands were made on Murray. The first was that he move from Mill Hill to Oxford; he did, in 1885. Murray had his Scriptorium re-erected on his new property, and the Post Office installed a pillar box outside his house.
Murray resisted the second demand: that if he could not meet schedule, he must hire a second, senior editor to work in parallel to him, outside his supervision, on words from elsewhere in the alphabet. Murray did not want to share the work, feeling he would accelerate his work pace with experience. That turned out not to be so, and Philip Gell of the OUP forced the promotion of Murray's assistant Henry Bradley (hired by Murray in 1884), who worked independently in the British Museum in London, beginning in 1888. In 1896, Bradley moved to Oxford University.
Gell continued harassing Murray and Bradley with his business concerns—containing costs and speedy production—to the point where the project's collapse seemed likely. Newspapers reported the harassment, and public opinion backed the editors. Gell was fired, and the University reversed his cost policies. If the editors felt that the Dictionary would have to grow larger, it would; it was an important work, and worth the time and money to properly finish. Neither Murray nor Bradley lived to see it. Murray died in 1915, having been responsible for words starting with A-D, H-K, O-P and T, nearly half the finished dictionary; Bradley died in 1923, having completed E-G, L-M, S-Sh, St and W-We. By then two additional editors had been promoted from assistant work to independent work, continuing without much trouble. William Craigie, starting in 1901, was responsible for N, Q-R, Si-Sq, U-V and Wo-Wy. Whereas previously the OUP had thought London too far from Oxford, after 1925 Craigie worked on the dictionary in Chicago, where he was a professor. The fourth editor was C. T. Onions, who, starting in 1914, compiled the remaining ranges, Su-Sz, Wh-Wo and X-Z.
Also in 1895, the title Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first used. It then appeared only on the outer covers of the fascicles; the original title was still the official one and was used everywhere else.
The 125th and last fascicle, covering words from Wise to the end of W, was published on 19 April 1928, and the full Dictionary in bound volumes followed immediately.
It had been 44 years since the publication of A-Ant and, of course, the English language had continued to develop and change, so that by this time the early volumes were noticeably out of date. The solution was for the same teams to produce a Supplement, listing all words and senses that had developed since the relevant pages were first printed; this also gave the opportunity to correct any errors or omissions. Purchasers of the 1928 edition were promised a free copy of the supplement when it appeared.
The supplement was again produced by two editors working in parallel. Craigie, now residing in the United States, did most of the research on American English usages; he also edited L-R and U-Z, while Onions did A-K and S-T. The work took another five years.
In 1933 the entire dictionary was reissued, now officially under the title of Oxford English Dictionary for the first time. The volumes after the first six were adjusted to equalize them somewhat and to eliminate the "half-volume" numbering: the main dictionary now consisted of 12 volumes, numbered as such, and starting at A, C, D, F, H, L, N, Poyesye, S, Sole, T, and V. The supplement was included as the 13th volume. The price of the dictionary was reduced to 20 guineas (£21).
There were three possible ways to update it. The cheapest would have been to leave the existing work alone and simply compile a new supplement of perhaps one or two volumes; but then anyone looking for a word or sense and unsure of its age would have to look in three different places. The most convenient choice for the user would have been for the entire dictionary to be re-edited and retypeset, with each change included in its proper alphabetical place; but this would have been the most expensive option, with perhaps 15 volumes required to be produced. The OUP chose a middle approach: combining the new material with the existing supplement to form a larger replacement supplement.
Robert Burchfield was hired in 1957 to edit the second supplement; Onions, who turned 84 that year, was still able to make some contributions as well. Burchfield emphasized the inclusion of modern-day language, and through the supplement the dictionary was expanded to include a wealth of new words from the burgeoning fields of science and technology, as well as popular culture and colloquial speech. Burchfield also broadened the scope to include developments of the language in English-speaking regions beyond the United Kingdom, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean. The work was expected to take seven to ten years. It actually took 29 years, by which time the new supplement (OEDS) had grown to four volumes, starting with A, H, O and Sea. They were published in 1972, 1976, 1982, and 1986 respectively, bringing the complete dictionary to 16 volumes, or 17 counting the first supplement.
By this time it was clear that the full text of the Dictionary would now need to be computerized. Achieving this would require retyping it once, but thereafter it would always be accessible for computer searching — as well as for whatever new editions of the dictionary might be desired, starting with an integration of the supplementary volumes and the main text. Preparation for this process began in 1983, and editorial work started the following year under the administrative direction of Timothy J. Benbow, with John A. Simpson and Edmund S. C. Weiner as co-editors.
And so the New Oxford English Dictionary (NOED) project began. More than 120 keyboarders of International Computaprint Corporation in Tampa, Florida, and Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, USA, started keying in over 350,000,000 characters, their work checked by 55 proof-readers in England. Retyping the text alone was not sufficient; all the information represented by the complex typography of the original dictionary had to be retained, which was done by marking up the content in SGML. A specialized search engine and display software were also needed to access it. Under a 1985 agreement, some of this software work was done at the University of Waterloo, Canada, at the Centre for the New Oxford English Dictionary, led by F.W. Tompa and Gaston Gonnet; this search technology went on to become the basis for the Open Text Corporation. Computer hardware, database and other software, development managers, and programmers for the project were donated by the British subsidiary of IBM; the colour syntax-directed editor for the project, LEXX, was written by Mike Cowlishaw of IBM. The University of Waterloo, in Canada, volunteered to design the database. A. Walton Litz, an English professor at Princeton University who served on the Oxford University Press advisory council, told Paul Gray of TIME (27 March 1989), "I've never been associated with a project, I've never even heard of a project, that was so incredibly complicated and that met every deadline."
By 1989 the NOED project had achieved its primary goals, and the editors, working online, had successfully combined the original text, Burchfield's supplement, and a small amount of newer material, into a single unified dictionary. The word "new" was again dropped from the name, and the Second Edition of the OED, or the OED2, was published. (The first edition retronymically became the OED1.)
The OED2 was printed in 20 volumes. For the first time, there was no attempt to start them on letter boundaries, and they were made roughly equal in size. The 20 volumes started with A, B.B.C., Cham, Creel, Dvandva, Follow, Hat, Interval, Look, Moul, Ow, Poise, Quemadero, Rob, Ser, Soot, Su, Thru, Unemancipated, and Wave.
Although the content of the OED2 is mostly just a reorganization of the earlier corpus, the retypesetting provided an opportunity for two long-needed format changes. The headword of each entry was no longer capitalized, allowing the user to readily see those words that actually require a capital letter. Also, whereas Murray had devised his own notation for pronunciation, there being no standard available at the time, the OED2 adopted the modern International Phonetic Alphabet. Unlike the earlier edition, all foreign alphabets except Greek were transliterated.
When the print version of the second edition was published in 1989, the response was enthusiastic. The author Anthony Burgess declared it "the greatest publishing event of the century," as quoted by Dan Fisher of the Los Angeles Times (25 March 1989). TIME dubbed the book "a scholarly Everest," and Richard Boston, writing for the London Guardian (24 March 1989), called it "one of the wonders of the world."
New material was published in the Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series, which consisted of two small volumes in 1993, and a third in 1997, bringing the dictionary to a total of 23 volumes. Each of the supplements added about 3,000 new definitions. However, no more Additions volumes are planned, and it is not expected that any part of the Third Edition, or OED3, will be printed in fascicles.
In 1971, the 13-volume OED1 (1933) was reprinted as a two-volume, Compact Edition, done by photographically reducing each page to one-half its linear dimensions; each compact edition page held four OED1 pages in a four-up ("4-up") format. The two volume letters were A and P; the Supplement was at the second volume's end.
The Compact Edition included, in a small slip-case drawer, a magnifying glass to help in reading reduced type. Many copies were inexpensively distributed through book clubs. In 1987, the second Supplement was published as a third volume to the Compact Edition. In 1991, for the OED2, the compact edition format was re-sized to one-third of original linear dimensions, a nine-up ("9-up") format requiring greater magnification, but allowing publication of a single-volume dictionary. After these volumes were published, though, book club offers commonly continued to sell the two-volume 1971 Compact Edition.
Once the text of the dictionary was digitized and online, it was also available to be published on CD-ROM. The text of the First Edition was made available in 1988. Afterward, three versions of the second edition were issued. Version 1 (1992) was identical in content to the printed Second Edition, and the CD itself was not copy-protected. Version 2 (1999) had some additions to the corpus, and updated software with improved searching features, but it had clumsy copy-protection that made it difficult to use and would even cause the program to deny use to OUP staff in the midst of demonstrating the product. Version 3 was released in 2002 with additional words and software improvements, though its copy-protection remained as unforgiving as that of the earlier version.
The current and only edition of the OED on CD available for purchase from Oxford University Press, Version 3.1.1 (2007), includes a return to the less restrictive nature of Version 1, with support for hard disk installation, so that the user does not have to insert the CD to use the dictionary. It has been reported that this version will work on operating systems other than Microsoft Windows, using emulation programs.
On 14 March 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online) became available to subscribers. The online database contains the entire OED2 and is updated quarterly with revisions that will be included in the OED3 (see below). The online edition is the most up-to-date version of the dictionary available.
As the price for an individual to use this edition, even after a reduction in 2004, is £195 or $295 US every year, most subscribers are large organizations such as universities. Some of them do not use the Oxford English Dictionary Online portal and have legally downloaded the entire database into their organization's computers. Some public libraries and companies have subscribed as well, including, in March and April 2006, most public libraries in England and Wales and New Zealand; any person belonging to a library subscribing to the service is able to use the service from their own home.
Another method of payment was also introduced in 2004, offering residents of North or South America the opportunity to pay $29.95 US a month to access the online site.
New content can be viewed through the OED Online or on the periodically updated CD-ROM edition. It is possible that the OED3 will never be printed conventionally, but will be available only electronically. That will be a decision for the future, when it is nearer completion.
As of 1993, John Simpson is the Chief Editor. Since the first work by each editor tends to require more revision than his later, more polished work, it was decided to balance out this effect by performing the early, and perhaps itself less polished, work of the current revision pass at a letter other than A. Accordingly, the main work of the OED3 has been proceeding in sequence from the letter M. When the OED Online was launched in March 2000, it included the first batch of revised entries (officially described as draft entries), stretching from M to mahurat, and successive sections of text have since been released on a quarterly basis; by June 2008, the revised section had reached ramvert. As new work is done on words in other parts of the alphabet, this is also included in each quarterly release. In March 2008, the editors announced that they would alternate each quarter between moving forward in the alphabet as before and updating "key English words from across the alphabet, along with the other words which make up the alphabetical cluster surrounding them."
The production of the new edition takes full advantage of computers, particularly since the June 2005 inauguration of the whimsically named "Perfect All-Singing All-Dancing Editorial and Notation Application", or "Pasadena." With this XML-based system, the attention of lexicographers can be directed more to matters of content than to presentation issues such as the numbering of definitions. The new system has also simplified the use of the quotations database, and enabled staff in New York to work directly on the Dictionary in the same way as their Oxford-based counterparts.
Other important computer uses include internet searches for evidence of current usage, and e-mail submissions of quotations by readers and the general public.
Wordhunt was a 2005 appeal to the general public for help in providing citations for 50 selected recent words, and produced antedatings for many. The results were reported in a BBC TV series, Balderdash and Piffle. The OED’s small army of devoted readers continue to contribute quotations; the department currently receives about 200,000 a year.
The sentence "The group analysed labour statistics published by the organization" is an example of OUP practice. This spelling (indicated with the registered IANA language tag en-GB-oed) is used by the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Organization for Standardization, and many British academic publications, such as Nature, the Biochemical Journal, and The Times Literary Supplement.
More recently, John Willinsky has criticized the OED in his Empire of Words: The Reign of the Oxford English Dictionary.
For a wider view of the history of dictionaries see: