The Eccentric Volunteers That Make The Oxford English Dictionary Work

About ten years ago, Sarah Ogilvie, a former editor at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), had some time on her hands. She was awaiting a visa that would bring her to the United States for a new job. With little else to do, she visited her favorite hangouts in the town of Oxford, soaking up the sights and smells of the place she was about to leave. One day, she stopped in at the OED’s archives in the basement of the Oxford University Press for a final look around.

Although the dictionary was not founded at the university, the OED might be described as the Oxford of dictionaries, so revered is it among reference works and books in general. It is the gold standard of academic English-language lexicography and a key tool behind many research projects into the history of English, including many other dictionaries. “It is as unthinkable that any contemporary lexicographer be without the OED,” wrote Sidney Landau in Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, first published in 1984, “as it is that a professional photographer fail to own a tripod to support his camera when needed.”

A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, as it was originally called, expounded a new model for dictionaries—the historical dictionary—teaching readers, many for the first time, to think of linguistic form and meaning as historically mutable. Words change—this is the OED’s great lesson, taught one dictionary entry at a time. Such change is documented and illuminated by quotations from historical and contemporary sources. The dictionary organizes the meanings of words into meticulously delineated senses, including obsolete ones. Together these methods help deliver a richness of context and background that is hard to find elsewhere.

But it is not a dictionary built for convenience. Many entries are exceedingly long. The entries for “go” and “run”—with more than 600 sense discriminations each—are currently the longest, according to Ogilvie. Hoping to translate that length into print terms, I checked the twenty-volume second edition of the dictionary, published in 1989; “go” goes on for fifteen pages and “run” runs for twenty.

Though the OED is published by Oxford University Press, it is, in many respects, the spiritual and intellectual opposite of an elite university. For one thing, its admissions policy is quite forgiving. The dictionary is not reserved for an elite fraction of the English language. With some exceptions—dirty words, for example, were suppressed for many years—all words are welcome because the OED was conceived “with an impartial hospitality,” as Richard Chenevix Trench, future Anglican archbishop of Dublin, said in his 1857 lectures to the Philological Society, which led directly to the founding of the OED.

A little over a hundred years after Samuel Johnson’s mold-breaking dictionary had introduced illustrative quotations to English-language lexicography and cast a powerful light on the great importance of sense discrimination, Trench was trying to envision what an ideal dictionary would look like. He struck a very different note than one found in Johnson, who was quite ambivalent about change though finally confessed himself helpless to arrest the ravages of time. With Trench, we see the beginning of a great about-face that led to a more detached approach among lexicographers and a greater respect for words as they exist.

A dictionary, said Trench, “is an inventory of the language.” As for the lexicographer: “It is no task of the maker of [a dictionary] to select the good words of a language…. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad.” Or, as the OED’s exuberant founding editor, philologist Frederick Furnivall, said, “Fling our doors wide! All, all, not one, but all must enter.”

Furnivall was talking about words, of course, but he might have been talking about people as well. For the OED was created with the help of many hands, male and female, English and foreigner, living inside Britain and all over the world. These readers—incredibly helpful, unpaid volunteers who read what they wanted, but in some cases accepted rather exacting assignments—helped make the OED what it is: a singular treasure trove of English-language history.

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