‘Your dictionary needs you’: a brief history of the OED’s appeals to the public

By Peter Gilliver, Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

The beginnings of the project

The OED’s record of appealing to the public for assistance stretches back to the very beginnings of the project over a century and a half ago—to a time when the project not only had nothing to do with Oxford, but wasn’t even a dictionary. In July 1857 a circular was issued by the ‘Unregistered Words Committee’ of the Philological Society of London, which had set up the Committee a few weeks earlier to organize the collection of material to supplement the best existing dictionaries. This circular, which was reprinted in various journals, asked for volunteers to undertake to read particular books and copy out quotations illustrating ‘unregistered’ words and meanings—items not recorded in other dictionaries—that could be included in the proposed supplement. Several dozen volunteers came forward, and the quotations began to pour in.

Within a few months, however, it was clear that no mere supplement could do justice to the volume of ‘unregistered’ material. In January 1858 the Philological Society decided that, instead, efforts should be directed toward the compilation of a complete dictionary, and one of unprecedented comprehensiveness. Renewed appeals to the public followed later that year, culminating in a formal ‘Proposal for the Publication of a New English Dictionary’.

Appeal to Americans

News of the planned Dictionary had reached America before this, but in August 1859 the first American to become seriously involved with the project, George P. Marsh, issued another appeal for assistance, this time directed specifically at Americans. Marsh’s appeal informed his fellow countrymen that ‘the entire body of English literature belonging to the eighteenth century has been reserved for their perusal’—on the basis that texts from earlier periods were rather harder to get hold of outside Britain. (In fact only a handful of Americans made contributions to the Dictionary in the next few years; this may be attributable to the fact that in 1861 George Marsh was appointed to a diplomatic position in Europe, and does not appear to have found anyone to take over the work of co-ordinating the American volunteers; and of course there was also the small matter of the American Civil War.)

James Murray’s first Appeal

The Dictionary project languished over the next decade or so, under the rather chaotic supervision of Frederick Furnivall, who had taken over the editorship of the Dictionary after the early death of the first Editor, Herbert Coleridge, from consumption (also in 1861). It was not until the late 1870s that interest in the project began to revive; this culminated in the spring of 1879 with the signing of contracts with Oxford University Press—who now undertook publication of the Dictionary—and with a new Editor, James Murray. He immediately realized that a new army of volunteers had to be recruited, and within weeks of his appointment had issued ‘An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public’. Copies of the new appeal—which eventually went into three editions—were sent to all corners of the globe, and new readers began to come forward in their hundreds, and eventually thousands. Once again an American was persuaded to take on the task of co-ordinating the work of his compatriots; this time it was the distinguished philologist Francis March, of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, who played an active part in the work of the Dictionary over the next thirty years.

All of the appeals to the public mentioned so far have been appeals for general help in collecting the raw material for the Dictionary: those who responded to an appeal would undertake to read a particular text and seek out, and copy out quotations for, any words and meanings which they considered worth noting. But in addition to this, once he began to compile actual Dictionary entries, James Murray realized that more specific help was needed. Even after the efforts of all of the voluntary readers—supplemented considerably by the work of himself and his assistants—he found that, for many words, the range of quotations available fell short of what he was sure must be findable somewhere. In many cases the only evidence so far collected for a word consisted of its mention in another dictionary (rather than an actual example of the word being used in context); in other cases, he was sure that earlier, or later, examples of a word could be found than those which had been collected so far. Accordingly, he wrote to the journal Notes and Queries, asking its readers to seek out quotations for nearly sixty words in the range abacist to abnormous. This new kind of appeal appeared in Notes and Queries on 25 October 1879; and a longer version, asking for help with words from abacist to adjust, was issued as a separate pamphlet.

The ‘list of wants’ or ‘desiderata’

The new pamphlet was to be the first of a long series, each listing words for which earlier evidence, or later evidence, or sometimes any evidence at all was needed by the Dictionary’s lexicographers. And soon other journals were reprinting the words on these lists—generally referred to by James Murray as his ‘lists of wants’ or ‘desiderata’—and inviting their readers to join in the hunt for quotations. Murray sometimes expressed disappointment at the poor rate of response, but there was evidently enough to justify continuing to compile and issue the lists for at least the next seventeen years: the last surviving list dates from 1896, by which time the Dictionary had acquired a second Editor, Henry Bradley, who worked independently of Murray on separate letters of the alphabet, and who issued a number of ‘desiderata lists’ of his own.

The first edition of the Dictionary was finally completed in 1928—by which time both Murray and Bradley were dead. However, no sooner had the final section of the Dictionary been published than a new appeal for assistance was made. The Dictionary’s two surviving Editors, William Craigie and Charles Onions, and their staffs were now at work on a Supplement, intended to document the changes that had taken place in the language during the four decades of the Dictionary’s publication; and once again they appealed to the public, both by issuing a general leaflet asking for volunteer readers, and by compiling and issuing lists of words for which additional quotation evidence was needed. The first of the new lists was printed in the Periodical—a promotional magazine issued by Oxford University Press—in October 1928, for words from A.B.C. shop to amplifier; similar lists also appeared in Notes and Queries, which was by now well established as a journal in which contributions to OED could be both published and solicited. When the Supplement was published in 1933, Craigie and Onions paid tribute in their Preface to those who had responded to these appeals, and the ‘many thousands’ of quotations that had been sent in.

The revised Supplement and the London Times

The 1933 Supplement remained the last word, as far as the OED was concerned, until the 1950s, when OUP decided that it was time to prepare a revised and expanded edition—not of the whole Dictionary, but of the Supplement. Once again, one of the first actions of the new Editor, Robert Burchfield, was to issue a leaflet appealing to the public to help with the collection of evidence; and once again lists of ‘desiderata’ began to appear, first as supplements to the Periodical and then in the pages of Notes and Queries. Versions of these lists also began to appear elsewhere: the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, for example, asked its readers to look out for various aeronautical terms, and for several years the London Times adopted a policy of featuring selected words from the lists from time to time, which in some cases generated a lively correspondence, and often some useful antedatings, as for example in the summer of 1960 when a report that no examples of the expression mud in your eye earlier than 1940 had so far been found was followed a few days later by a letter providing a 1927 example which is still the earliest known to us.

By the time the fourth and final volume of the expanded Supplement appeared, in 1986, the next stage in the development of the OED was already under way: the creation of the second edition of the Dictionary, in which the text of the first edition was to be combined with that of the Supplement, together with several thousand additional new entries. The editing of this new batch of new entries was entrusted to John Simpson, who once again published ‘Appeals Lists’ asking for help with particular words, initially in the New OED Newsletter and then elsewhere. The second edition of the Dictionary, co-edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, appeared in 1989.

‘Your Language Needs You’

Of course the publication of the second edition did not put an end to the process of collecting evidence about new words and meanings; the compilation of new OED entries to document these words and meanings continues to this day, and appeals for particular items continued to appear in OED newsletters. But during the early 1990s, alongside this, work began on the mammoth task of revising the Dictionary. And in July 1999 the Dictionary made a renewed general appeal to the public, in a conscious echo of James Murray’s ‘Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public’ of 120 years earlier. Under the heading ‘Your Language Needs You’, John Simpson issued an invitation to ‘contribute to the development of the dictionary by adding to our record of English throughout the world’. This was also when the OED first went online—opening up a new channel of communication between the Dictionary and those who might wish to contribute to it—though it was not until March 2000 that the first Dictionary entries were made available at www.oed.com.

Balderdash & Piffle and the Wordhunt

In 2005 the OED linked up with the BBC for another kind of appeal to the public. The Wordhunt asked BBC television viewers—and users of various websites—for help in finding earlier examples of a selection of 50 words and phrases; and the results were presented the following year in the television series Balderdash & Piffle. The project generated considerable public interest, and some significant antedatings were found, several of them from distinctly unconventional sources, which are now quoted in the Dictionary. Our earliest example of balti, for example, comes from an advertisement for an Indian restaurant in the Heathan, a local freesheet distributed in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham; and the documentary record of the exclamation phwoar! now begins with a schoolgirl’s autograph book from the 1970s. Following the success of this venture, in 2007 a second Wordhunt was launched, focusing on a new collection of 40 words and phrases, and the results featured in a second series of Balderdash & Piffle, with more antedatings that our own researchers could hardly have been expected to find: like the page in a policeman’s notebook which furnished our earliest example of twoc (short for ‘taking without owner’s consent’), or the example of wazzock that was tracked down on a recording of a one-man show by the comedian Mike Harding, released as an LP (under the matter-of-fact title One Man Show) in 1976.

All of which goes to show that the efforts of members of the public have been at the heart of what the OED has been doing for over a century and a half; and long may it remain so. The Dictionary couldn’t be written without their contribution.

First published 4 October 2012

We are calling on the public to help us again: the OED Appeals is a new part of our website where OED editors ask for your help in uncovering the history of particular words and phrases. Find out about the OED Appeals.

Watch this video for a brief history of the OED’s Appeals to the public: