Past appeals

The OED has a long and rich history of appealing to the public for assistance. For a full account take a look at Peter Gilliver’s ‘History of the Appeals’.

Sir James Murray, the first editor of the OED, initiated his first Appeal To Readers in April 1879. Readers were invited to read designated books and send in examples of the words they encountered. (“Crowdsourcing” more than a century before the term was even coined!)

Murray soon realized that the dictionary also needed targeted help on specific words, for instance in cases where he was certain that earlier, or later, examples of a word must exist. He issued a new type of request, for nearly sixty words in the range from abacist to abnormous, in the pages of the journal Notes and Queries in 1879, but it was soon followed by a series of pamphlets, which were issued over the course of seventeen years and reprinted in a variety of journals.

Even after the first edition of the OED was published, in 1928, public appeals for help with particular words continued in various forms in conjunction with Supplements, the 1989 second edition, and the revision currently underway. In 2005, the OED and BBC teamed up to engage the public in lexicographic research through the television series Balderdash & Piffle. This programme produced exciting evidence from sources that would never have been accessible through ordinary research, such as a schoolgirl’s autograph book and a policeman’s notebook.

Appeals information from the Archives

Appeal for American readers (1859) – George P. Marsh

Appeal for readers (Apr. 1879) – James Murray

List of books already read (1879) – James Murray

Appeal for readers (ed. 2, June 1879) – James Murray

Appeal for readers (ed. 3, Jan. 1880) – James Murray


Balderdash and Piffle

About the BBC TV series

A newsletter from John Simpson about Balderdash and Piffle