The number of people who contributed quotations to the First Edition of the OED runs into four figures. Many individuals contributed thousands of quotations, but sheer volume is not the best measure of significance, as out of all of the quotations sent in, only a selection were included in the published dictionary.

The readers

The vast majority of people who contributed quotations did so by volunteering to read and excerpt particular works. Readers who offered to do this, many of them in response to the 1879 Appeal, could be supplied with pre-printed slips bearing the bibliographical details of the work, to save them the labour of writing out these details on each slip (an example of this can be seen on the slip submitted by W. C. Minor). Many people also sent in quotations from anything they happened to be reading – including Furnivall, who famously sent in huge quantities of cuttings from his daily newspaper.

Filling in the gaps

Once the work of compiling Dictionary entries had begun, the editors, subeditors, and assistants engaged in this work would become aware of gaps in the documentation illustrating a particular word. They would of course fill these gaps wherever they could by extracting further quotations from whatever works were available to them, but from a very early stage lists were issued to the general public of words for which additional quotations were particularly wanted. Of course, a higher proportion of the quotations sent in for words on these lists would be used than was the case for quotations extracted by readers working without knowledge of the editors’ specific requirements. We still solicit the help of the public in the same way today.

Late arrivals

When Dictionary entries reached the proof stage, further quotations were supplied by another, crucial group of workers: those who read and commented on the proofs. The quotations supplied at this stage, while few in number compared to the large batches excerpted from particular sources, made an enormous difference to the final form of the text of the Dictionary.

Biographical information on staff and contributors

Peter Gilliver, Associate Editor, OED, has compiled an annotated list of the main contributors to the first edition.

In the case of the very well known ones listed below, we also provide some additional details and a sample of the slips they contributed.

Alexander Beazeley (1830-1905)

A civil engineer specializing in lighthouse construction, Beazeley was, according to Murray, ‘a devoted friend of the Dictionary from its very commencement’, contributing upwards of 30,000 quotations to the OED. Beazeley also acted as consultant on terms in architecture and engineering. The quotation submitted by Beazeley on this slip was used in the Dictionary, and can be seen in the entry for rough v.(1), sense 6 b. The text on the slip reads: ‘1793 Smeaton Edystone L. §144 The two new steps * * and all the dovetails were roughed out, and some of the beds brought to a level and finished.’

Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910)

A scholar and editor, Furnivall was well-known for his tactlessness and impulsive nature. The OED, however, owes much of its existence to his persistence and energy. Furnivall was appointed in 1857 to the Philological Society’s Unrecorded Words Committee (it is likely, in fact, that Furnivall suggested to Richard Chenevix Trench that the Society collect early words not recorded in contemporary dictionaries). Furnivall became the editor of the New English Dictionary after the death of Herbert Coleridge in 1861. He eventually became diverted by other literary activies, including the establishment of the Early English Text Society. He continued a long association with the OED until his death, contributing many quotations from his daily newspapers. The quotation slip written by Furnivall appears in the entry for odd, a. (n.) and adv., sense D.2. The text reads: ‘1873 R. Broughton Nancy I. 79 A dinner-party..a squire or two, a squiress or two, a curate or two – such odd-come-shorts as can be got together in a scattered country neighbourhood at briefest notice.’

Henry Hucks Gibbs (1819-1907)

First Baron Aldenham, businessman, and former director of the Bank of England, Hucks Gibbs joined the Philological Society in 1859. Through the Society, he formed a lifelong association with the OED, becoming a close friend and adviser to Murray. The quotation slip written by Hucks Gibbs was in fact never used, although many submitted by him were. The text reads: ‘1562 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) f. 6g, Come to me all you that be ouercharged, and I shall refresshe you.’

Fitzedward Hall (1825-1901)

A scholar and philologist, American-born and -educated Hall took up the professorship of Sanskrit at King’s College London in 1862. After retiring from public life as a result of various controversies, which included his expulsion from the Philological Society, he was persuaded to assist with the OED by Walter Skeat. Although they never met, Hall being something of a recluse, he became one of Murray’s closest friends and contributors, devoting at least 4 hours of each day to reading and annotating OED proofs. The quotation slip written by Hall appears in the entry for of, prep., sense 50. The quotation reads: ‘1804 Mitford Inq. Princ. Harmony Lang. (ed. 2) 405 The great attending injury has been to the analogy of the language.’ Hall added a note at the bottom of the slip: ‘(You must fill up the date. And is the title full enough? I have not the book at hand.)’.

William Chester Minor (1835-1920)

Minor, an American physician, had served as a surgeon-captain during the American Civil war, but had a history of mental illness.

He was committed to Broadmoor
Criminal Lunatic Asylum

During a trip to England in 1872, he shot and killed a man, and was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Being a man of great intellectual ability, he became a principal contributor of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century quotations to the first edition of the Dictionary. The quotation slip submitted by Minor appears in set, v., sense 17 a. The text on the slip reads: ‘a1548 Hall Chron., Hen. IV. (1550) 32b, Duryng whiche sickenes as Auctors write he caused his crowne to be set on the pillowe at his beddes heade.’

Henry Edward George Rope (1880-1978)

Rope was a member of Murray’s, and, from 1905, Bradley’s editorial staff. He eventually became a Catholic priest, with missions at Morley Hall, Shropshire, and elsewhere. He continued to contribute quotations for the OED and its Supplements until his death. The quotation submitted by Rope appears in the entry for rough, a., sense B. 21 b. The slip reads: ‘1887 Encycl. Brit. XXII. 192/1 s.v. Snakes, Family 3. Uropeltidæ (Rough Tails).. . Tail very short, truncated or scarcely tapering, frequently terminating in a rough naked disk or covered with keeled scales.’ The advertisement on the reverse of the slip demonstrates Rope’s habit of recycling whatever paper was to hand.

Edith Thompson (1848-1929)

A historian, and the author of a popular History of England, Thompson acted as consultant to the OED on historical terms. She was a major reader for the Dictionary who, along with her sister, Elizabeth Perronet Thompson, was credited in 1888 with 15,000 quotations. She also subedited C and proofread from D onwards. The quotation submitted by Edith Thompson was never used, although she had supplied it for use in the entry for paddock. The text reads: ‘1856 [H. H. Dixon] Post & Paddock ii. 43 If you go into a paddock, and see a lengthy, plain-headed foal with lop ears gazing at you.’ Thompson had annotated the slip: ‘(This is a rather good quot. as it shows that you may expect to see foals in paddocks. E.T.)’.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973)

Tolkien is best-known today
for his fantasy fiction

A member of Bradley’s editorial staff between 1919 and 1920, Tolkien’s contribution to the OED was in the range waggle-warlock. After his stint on the Dictionary, Tolkien went on to publish many works on Old and Middle English, later taking up professorships in Anglo-Saxon and English language and literature at Oxford. Tolkien is best known today for his fantasy fiction, most notably The Hobbit (1937) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55). The quotation which Tolkien had intended for walrus was not used, and reads: ‘1896 Cosmopolitan xx. 356/2 Near Herbert Island I secured a goodly number of walruses – cows, calves, yearlings and two-year-olds.’ Tolkien had added a note at the bottom of the slip: ‘(See cutting walrus-calf)’.