Thoughts on the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

Charlotte Brewer

The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary[*] merges the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED1), published between 1884 and 1928, with the recent (1972-1986) four-volume Supplement, to produce an extremely handsome and typographically seamless whole. The editors of OED1 set out to give a full historical account of all the words ever used in the English language; the editor of the Supplement, R.W. Burchfield, aimed to update OED with comprehensive evidence on 20th-century words and senses. So OED2, which combines these two dictionaries, makes a substantial claim to lexical authority. OED2 contains over half a million definitions, including 5000 which entered the lexicographers’ files after the relevant volume of the Supplement appeared. The new edition also switches to the International Phonetic Alphabet for representing pronunciation. How successful has the project been, and how useful is this publication?

The first question is difficult to answer. The riches stored in the two previous dictionaries are now much more accessible, and reviewers have already reported how delightful it is to browse through one of the 20 handsome volumes of OED2, and ponder, marvel or cavil at individual words and definitions among the extraordinary wealth of examples recorded on its pages. But what can such sample browsing tell us about the project as a whole, which purports to provide a systematic, reliable and comprehensive history of the English vocabulary? To make an assessment of the dictionary in its entirety, we need to judge its editorial premises and methodology. This boils down to three separate factors, crucial to any lexicographical enterprise: the nature of the sources consulted to supply evidence on word usage, the thoroughness and accuracy with which these sources were read, and the use made by the lexicographers of the evidence which the source study provided. Unfortunately, it is surprisingly difficult for the average OED2 user to form an accurate opinion on any of these three factors.

The obvious place to look is the Introduction. OED2 reprints the Historical Introduction to the OED1 by C.T. Onions, which tells how the editors, headed by James Murray, relied on armies of volunteer readers. These readers worked through lists of titles provided for them by the editors, and recorded on slips of paper the words and senses (in their original context) they thought worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. The slips were returned to the editors, who analysed them to draw up their categories of the various senses of words, and choose which quotations should illustrate which usage.

But Onions leaves us hungry for more information, especially on the three major lexicographical factors I have identified above: source material, reader proficiency, and the processing of the readers’ evidence. How did the editors decide on which sources to read? Was there a policy of balancing literary with non-literary sources? Did the editors carry out any vetting process, or did they accept all those who volunteered to be readers? How efficient and accurate were the readers, and how was this tested? What sorts of implications did the change-over of editors have for editorial policy, and how does this affect the dictionary?

The Introductions to OED1 and the Supplement do not answer these questions. James Murray’s grand-daughter gives more information in her book Caught in the Web of Words, which paints an extraordinary picture of the difficulties and problems which made Murray’s achievement even more heroic, but also more flawed, than is usually presented. Her account is not reassuring about the quality of the readers and the editorial processing of their material. Numerous problems arose from relying heavily on voluntary (and therefore unskilled) labour. Murray describes the readers’ ‘most pernicious and deceptive practice’ of reading books for particular letters only, and their tendency to pass over illustrations of the usage of common words. Murray also worried ceaselessly about the scholarly consequences of the pressures placed upon him by his publishers to complete the work. For example, he lamented in a letter to a friend, the distinguished Medievalist W.W. Skeat: ‘I have always said that the letter [E] ought to be done again.’ Such a statement, from the person who had best cause to know the relationship between the evidence and the dictionary’s treatment of it, is extremely disquieting. Was Murray merely a worrying, busybody perfectionist, or are some of his concerns well grounded? Should we trust the evidence on words beginning with E as reliable, or not? OED2 provides no answers, since it makes no reference to Murray’s reservations.

So far as I know, only one study of OED1 makes any attempt to subject it to thorough-going methodological examination. This is the little-known but revelatory book by Jürgen Schäfer on OED documentation.[†] In a paragraph that ought to be placed at the head of the introductory matter to the second OED, with its import prominently displayed in the self-lauding publicity material, Schäfer soberly remarks:

The increasing discrepancy between the methods used at that time [i.e., when OED was compiled] and those used now for evaluation calls for a detailed analysis of the nature and reliability of the OED documentation itself. Insted of providing an unquestioned basis for further research, the OED has to become its object. If we are ignorant of the premises of the OED documentation, we cannot properly evaluate it; and it is indeed remarkable how little is known about the application of the principles set forth in the introduction of the dictionary. Selection and distribution of source texts, lemmatisation policy, consistency of approach under various editors, to mention only a few of the major questions, have only recently begun to be studied in detail, despite the fact that all of these may have far-reaching consequences for the nature of the OED documentation and, of course, for any conclusions based upon it.

Schäfer chooses to examine just one aspect of OED policy: the accuracy of the dates given for the first use of a word. He reread a selection of the sources read by OED to discover that ‘at least one-third of the potential first citations in any corpus examined for the OED was normally overlooked.’ Of these, 30 per cent would shift OED dates by over fifty years, 7 per cent by over one hundred years.

One cause of such striking inaccuracy is that some authors were much better known and loved by the OED readers than others. The works of Shakespeare and Milton were combed for OED quotations with far greater thoroughness than those of Malory and Wyatt, which means that the former are disproportionately well-represented in the dictionary. Shakespeare is listed as the first user of 1904 words in OED, but 50 of these can be ante-dated from the works of Nashe alone, an author also read by OED for the same period.

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[*] The second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published on 30 March and discussed here by Frank Kermode (LRB, 20 April).

[†] Documentation in the OED (Oxford, 1980).