Reading Programme

What is the Reading Programme?

The definitive dictionary of the English language owes much of its stature to the simple process of writing words on slips of paper. This process is the core of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Reading Programme, the system through which the millions of quotations included in OED entries are found, examined, assessed, and incorporated into an entry.

The Reading Programme has been in existence (with some lapses) since 1857. Quite simply, the Programme recruits voluntary and paid readers, and these readers provide the OED editors with quotations which illustrate how words are used.

This process is vital to the authority of the Dictionary. The quotations are one of the most important aspects of the entries contained in the OED. They document the history of a term from its earliest to its most recent recorded usage. They are vital tools which help lexicographers create accurate definitions, and they help OED readers understand these definitions by showing through direct example, rather than abstractly, how a word has been used.

Learning to read

The first edition of the OED was published in instalments between 1884 and 1928, but the process of collecting quotations began in 1857, when the British Philological Society began to recruit volunteer readers for the projected New English Dictionary. The programme was directed first by Herbert Coleridge and then by his successor Frederick Furnivall. The programme’s scores of readers pored over extensive written materials to find quotations, but focused almost exclusively on literary texts.

When the Oxford University Press took on the project in 1878, the editors thought that the material furnished by the Philological Society volunteers would prove sufficient for the Dictionary. However, the new editor, James A. H. Murray, soon found that the existing resources were inadequate for the depth of coverage he had in mind.

The original Reading Programme focused
too heavily on esoteric vocabulary

Murray saw weaknesses in the Philological Society’s treatment of eighteenth century and contemporary writing, and discovered that the quality of reading in Middle and Early Modern English had suffered due to the unavailability of texts and because readers were untrained and found the language difficult. Murray also felt that the original Reading Programme focused too heavily on esoteric vocabulary. For instance, readers had collected about 50 examples of the word abusion, but only five examples of the much more widely known and used word, abuse.

Murray addressed all of these deficiencies by setting up a programme that was broader in the scope of its reading and its readers. In 1879 he published an Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public. He had 2,000 copies of the document distributed. The copies were issued not just in Britain, but in America and the British Colonies. His appeal was geographically wide-ranging and open to all. ‘Anyone can help,’ he wrote, ‘especially with modern books.’ By stating this, Murray made it a fundamental principle that the Dictionary would reflect the living English language, placing as much importance on words used by everyday people as on advanced terms used by scholars and specialists.

Murray’s appeal to any and all was well received: he drew responses from about 500 American contributors as well as 800 or so in Britain. Many of the most consistently productive readers were not renowned scholars, but interested laypeople. These British and American contributors supplied over one million quotations in the three years prior to publication of the first instalment (usually called a fascicle) of the Dictionary.

From slips of paper to a quotation compendium

The detailed description of English contained in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was based largely on quotations gathered through the Reading Programme. Some 1.8 million examples of words and phrases were included in this first edition, excerpted from novels, newspapers, magazines, scientific and philosophical treatises, manuscripts, and other documents covering written English from Anglo-Saxon times until the early twentieth century.

Each quotation was written
out on a small index slip

These first edition quotations found their way into the OED through a series of steps that remained standard procedure for well over a century. First, the quotations were collected by readers participating in the Reading Programme. After being submitted to Oxford, each quotation was written out on a small (6×4 inch) index slip, with a reference included to explain the source of the quotation. These slips were filed alphabetically according to the word noted by the reader, to be used by OED lexicographers as they proceeded to compile the Dictionary.

Murray’s quotation legacy

Murray’s programme provided the vast majority of the quotations which appeared in the 1928 edition of the OED. After this publication there was much unused quotation evidence left over. To make use of this extra information the OED editors decided to publish a single-volume Supplement. This supplementary volume was published in 1933, along with a reissued edition of the Dictionary.

Even after publication of the Supplement there were still about 140,000 quotations slips left over. These quotations slips were put into storage or donated to other historical dictionary projects, such as a project for a dictionary of Middle English in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After these tasks were completed, the Dictionary staff was disbanded, and the Reading Programme was abandoned for over two decades.

A new Supplement, a new Reading Programme

In 1957 Oxford University Press began work on a new Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. In preparation, a new Reading Programme was established by the editor of the Supplement, Robert Burchfield.

As might be expected, this Reading Programme had a different emphasis from Murray’s. Where the original programme had focused on examining texts from the entire history of English, this new programme targeted modern-day language. As a result, the 1957 programme included a much broader range of general, popular, and scientific sources than its predecessor, and international varieties of English were surveyed systematically for the first time.

In addition, this Supplement‘s editors could draw on the 140,000 quotation slips left over from the 1933 volume. These slips came from a rich range of sources, such as private quotation collections, the work of countless scholars published in language journals such as Notes & Queries and American Speech, and a wide variety of specialist dictionaries covering slang, dialect, technical, and scientific vocabulary. The information culled from these sources served to further enhance the depth and scope of the OED.

Life beyond Supplements

The Press published additional Supplements until 1986, when the fourth and last volume was released. This time instead of abandoning the Reading Programme, as the Press had done after completion of the 1933 Supplement, it was enlarged. The Programme was expanded to serve a growing variety of OUP dictionary titles, such as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and the Concise Oxford Dictionary. The Programme now also served specialized resources such as the Dictionary of Modern Slang and two dictionaries of New Words. At the same time, an editorial team was assembled and given the specific job of compiling new entries for the Oxford English Dictionary through systematic and ongoing analysis of the quotation files.

Advances through electronic technology

The Reading Programme diversified and modernized in 1989 when a North American Reading Programme was set up to take over coverage of American and Canadian sources. This programme added a new innovation: for the first time quotations were collected in machine-readable form, allowing the results to be loaded into a database. Now editors could quickly conduct searches for quotations from their desktop computers instead of having to scrutinize voluminous paper files.

In 1990, the UK programme also began electronic capture of material, abandoning a century-old process in favour of the amazing efficiencies of electronic technology. What once was a paper slip has now become an electronic text-file. Instead of transcribing quotations and sources on to 6×4 inch paper slips, a staff of computer keyboarders works from the actual text sources, keying quotations directly into a computer. Each one of these files is loaded directly into the Reading Programme database, where it can be accessed immediately by Oxford lexicographers.

In addition to providing unprecedented text accessibility and searching speed, the electronically-based Reading Programme data allows editors to examine collected quotation material in new ways. Each text-file is assigned codes that enable searches within specific subject fields, dates, countries of origin, authors, or texts. Quotations can be displayed to show full bibliographical information for the text in question.

Perhaps most significantly, the new electronic format makes the whole text of each quotation retrievable, and therefore searchable. In the days of alphabetically filed paper slips, editors could only search for the particular word or term being defined. It was impossibly time-consuming to look for any other words of interest in a quotation’s surrounding context. Editors now have the choice of searching the full text in which a quotation appears, or only those words highlighted by Reading Programme participants. This also means that OED editors are no longer entirely reliant on individual readers’ judgments about what is and isn’t remarkable in a sentence, or about what might already have been covered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Between them, the UK and North American Reading Programmes currently collect about 200,000 new quotations per year. The Reading Programme database currently contains over 1.3 million separate quotations. The full database text, which currently holds over 40 million words, is updated every night with newly-keyed sources.

An expanding programme

A comprehensive and up-to-date record
of new and specialist vocabulary

As the Reading Programme has expanded, so have the sources consulted for quotations and the uses of the evidence gathered through these sources. For instance, today the Reading Programme not only provides the quotations that appear in Oxford dictionaries, but is also designed to be a comprehensive and up-to-date record of new and specialist vocabulary. This record is available to all Oxford lexicographers for consultation.

In addition to providing systematic coverage of specialist fields, the OED editors have created projects that cover less obvious language sources, such as television scripts and song lyrics. The editors also make wide use of commercial databases, electronic texts, and Internet resources, using these resources as supplements to the existing paper and electronic quotation files.

In recent years, both the UK and North American Reading Programmes have focused more on collecting material from every part of the English-speaking world. Quotations are collected from OUP’s branch offices throughout Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. These branches send UK readers an enormous variety of local publications from these regions. In addition, separate Reading Programmes are run by the Australian National Dictionary, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and the Dictionary of South African English.

Oxford University Press has also extended
the Reading Programme backwards in time

Oxford University Press has also extended the Reading Programme backwards in time. The original Dictionary relied heavily on a small number of authors (notably, of course, Shakespeare) for its coverage of Early Modern English (1500-1700). Today, readers systematically survey a much broader spectrum of texts from this and other periods. A separate Historical Reading Programme has been created to serve this function. Readers participating in this programme supply material specifically for the revision of the OED; usually these are earlier examples of words or phrases that are already included in the Dictionary. These readers check their findings against the Oxford English Dictionary to ensure that only significant items are filed, such as earlier examples of words and meanings or terms that have not yet been registered in the database. Out of necessity, but also in what seems a fitting tribute to Murray’s original system, the Historical Reading Programme still uses the old fashioned paper slip process of recording quotations, since many of the reading materials used are only available through print libraries.

In addition to the ‘traditional’ canon of literary works, today’s Reading Programme covers women’s writing and non-literary texts which have been published in recent times, such as wills, probate inventories, account books, diaries, and letters. The programme also covers the eighteenth century, since studies have shown that the original Oxford English Dictionary reading in this period was less extensive than it was for the previous two centuries. Also carefully perused are the books and articles by other scholars who have studied the language of individual authors of the Early Modern English period. This ensures that the Oxford English Dictionary reflects these authors’ findings as fully and accurately as possible.

One of the most extensive surveys of
the English language ever undertaken

Taken as a whole, these Reading Programmes represent one of the most extensive surveys of the English language ever undertaken. Since the first publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, the breadth of materials available and the means of retrieving and analyzing those materials have expanded incalculably. Despite the changes, the original aim of the programme remains unaltered since the days of James A. H. Murray: to collect examples of the changing vocabulary of English from a highly diverse range of published sources spanning the entire English-speaking world, and to provide the Oxford English Dictionary‘s editors with a constantly updated and ever more detailed record of English past and present.