1928: the Year of the Dictionary

1928: the Year of the Dictionary

‘This year, whatever else it may be, is the Year of the Dictionary.’ So wrote Charles Onions in the Times of 19 April 1928, in an article celebrating the completion of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The final section or ‘fascicle’ of the Dictionary, covering words from Wise to Wyzen—and with the names of Charles Onions and William Craigie, the two surviving Editors, on its title page—was published on that day, bringing to a triumphant conclusion the labour of thousands of people over nearly three-quarters of a century. The English language now had a dictionary unmatched in its comprehensiveness and wealth of detail: ‘the supreme authority, without a rival or the prospect of a rival’, as it was described a few years later—a description which still holds today. The OED provides unequalled documentation of the words that make up the English language as it has been spoken, written, printed, and transmitted over the last millennium.

Printing the final First Edition fascicle
Work began on the Dictionary in the 1850s, when members of the Philological Society of London conceived a new standard for dictionaries of English to aspire to, and decided that existing dictionaries fell short of this ideal—and that work should begin on a dictionary that would achieve it. They appealed to the public to help, and volunteers signed up to do so, in their hundreds and—over the decades that followed—thousands, from all over the English-speaking world. The Dictionary’s first Editor, Herbert Coleridge, died in 1861, only a year into his task; over the next 67 years five more would follow, of whom the most famous was James Murray, the remarkable Scottish schoolmaster who was appointed by Oxford University Press in 1879 to compile what was then expected to be a four-volume work. He was soon joined by the equally remarkable Henry Bradley, and in due course by Craigie and Onions. Alongside these Editors worked dozens of men and women who helped with the drafting and researching of Dictionary entries, and surrounding this editorial staff were hundreds more proofreaders, consultants, and advisers. But thousands more supplied the raw material for these Dictionary entries: quotations—actual examples taken from English texts of all periods, showing how each word was actually used at different periods of its history. Through these quotations the lexicographers were able to illustrate the life-story of each word of the language. This was the new ideal of lexicography: the ‘historical principles’ that were proclaimed on the title page of every fascicle of the Dictionary, from the first—published in 1884, and covering A to Ant—to the last.

Title page of final fascicle of the OED First Edition

The day when that final fascicle was published was marked by special events on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington DC, William Craigie presented a copy of the completed Dictionary to President Calvin Coolidge; a copy was also presented to King George V in Britain. The main event in Oxford was a special exhibition of dictionaries at the Bodleian Library: rather more muted than the ‘military exercises, boxing matches between the dons, orations in Latin, Greek, English, and the Oxford dialect […] and a series of medieval drinking bouts’ that had been predicted by the American humourist H. L. Mencken, but the atmosphere was still one of celebration. Messages of congratulation flooded in, among them a telegram from the editors of a historical dictionary of Dutch, the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal—still some decades from completion, even though work on it had started before the OED. Good dictionaries, it can truly be said, take time.

Over the next few weeks there were also ‘orations in Latin’: honorary degrees were awarded to the Dictionary’s surviving Editors at Oxford and Cambridge. The grandest public celebration, however, came on 6 June, when a splendid nine-course banquet was held at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, attended by nearly 100 guests, including the Prime Minister, the Bishop of Oxford, and many other luminaries.

OED First Edition banquet menu

Among the numerous speeches was an eloquent toast to the Dictionary’s Editors and staff from the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who acclaimed the OED as ‘unrivalled in completeness and unapproachable in authority […] a work of endless fascination’, and declared that if he was only allowed to take one book to a desert island, it would be this one—thus anticipating the choices made by several castaways on Desert Island Discs (David Dimbleby, Germaine Greer, Billy Connolly…) over a decade before that radio programme was devised.

Baldwin’s assessment of the OED was matched by many of the reviews that greeted the completion of the Dictionary from around the world. The Spectator called it ‘a triumph of scholarship’; the Melbourne Age called it ‘a great conception and a wonderful achievement’; American Speech noted that it was ‘truly a triumph of international industry’.

Many commentators, it is true, noted that the OED, like any other dictionary of a living language, was liable to go out of date as soon as it was printed. This had begun to be addressed long before the lexicographers had completed their first traversal of the alphabet: for decades they had been collecting and filing evidence for the words and meanings that had come to light after the relevant fascicles of the Dictionary were published. The compilation of entries for these items had begun already in 1927, and a Supplement of new words and meanings appeared in 1933. And since then the process of keeping track of further changes in the language has continued, right down to the present day: the addition of new words and new meanings is a key component of the work of compiling the third edition of the OED.

OED 90 birthday logo

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