Do Not Play Scrabble With These People

Jennie Price celebrates 75 years of the completion of the O.E.D.

This year sees the 75th anniversary of a milestone in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary: the publication of the final instalment (or ‘fascicle’) of the first edition of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (N.E.D) as it was then known. The event was celebrated at a dinner, held on June 6th, 1928, at Goldsmith’s Hall, in the presence of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Seventy years earlier, the Philological Society had resolved to publish ‘a completely new English Dictionary’. But it was not until 1879 that James Murray was appointed as the first editor, and agreement was reached with the Oxford University Press to publish the dictionary. The work was planned to be in four volumes, produced over five years. However, by the time of the deadline, Murray and his team had published just the first instalment, ending at ‘ant’, and a drastic re-evaluation was required. When the last fascicle was published in April 1928, it completed a ten-volume dictionary documenting over 400,000 words and phrases.

The Goldsmiths’ Company, the only company to contribute financially toward the making of the Dictionary, hosted the celebratory dinner. Stanley Baldwin praised the work of the editors and their staff, saying ‘the Oxford Dictionary is the greatest enterprise of its kind in history’, and ‘if ever a work was destined for eternity, this is it’. Indeed, the amount of work that went into creating the Dictionary was phenomenal. The senses of every word, and related phrases and compounds, were meticulously recorded on thousands of slips of paper, both by the Dictionary’s staff and by many voluntary contributors (who were responding to an original appeal made in 1859 by the Philological Society and repeated by Murray in 1879). Editors sorted and analysed the slips, selecting apt illustrations to reflect the history of each word.

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