Little Bits of History

Look It Up

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 19, 2010

Murray and the OED

April 19, 1928: The last fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] is published. The OED was published in smaller pieces called fascicles – 125 of them. Each fascicle was anywhere from 64 to 352 pages long. Each new letter began with a new fascicle.

The latest version of the printed OED was published in 1989 with approximately 301,100 main entries, 157,000 combinations, and 169,000 phrases or 616,500 word-forms. There are over 350 million printed characters in the 21,730 pages. Thomas Browne is the most frequently quoted source for neologisms or new words. William Shakespeare is the author most often quoted and Hamlet is the most-quoted work. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is the most frequently cited woman. The Bible is the most quoted collective work while Cursor Mundi (an anonymous Middle English religious poem) is the most-quoted single work.

This all started when the Philological Society of London became so dissatisfied with the current dictionaries they planned to compile their own dictionary. The leaders of this enterprise were Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall.

Trent’s career didn’t leave him enough time to actually work on the project. Coleridge published his plan for the work on May 12, 1860. The first sample pages were published in April, 1861. Tragically, Coleridge died later that month at the age of 31. Furnivall took over the editorship, but didn’t have the temperament for the long-term project.

James Murray took over the editorship in the 1879. He moved to Oxford where the university agreed to finance the publishing of the book as well as pay Murray. On February 1, 1884 [24 years later] the first fascicle was published. Ten years later, 11 fascicles [up to and including the letter E] were published. Murray was editor until his death in 1915. Sixty-eight years after the start of the project, the 125th fascicle was published with the full dictionary in bound volumes following.

“If you have a big enough dictionary, just about everything is a word.”  –  Dave Barry

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” – Noah Webster

“DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.” – Ambrose Bierce from Devil’s Dictionary

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Also on this day, in 1943 Albert Hofmann experimented with LSD.

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