Little Bits of History

Well, It’s a Start

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 1, 2014
First fascicle of the OED

First fascicle of the OED

February 1, 1884: The first fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is published. The full title was  New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, so we are lucky they shortened that a bit. The first fascicle was 325 pages and had the words A to Ant included. It sold for 12s.6d or what would have been equivalent to $3.25 at the time or £276 today. Only 4,000 copies sold which was disappointing.

The dictionary bearing its name was not originally associated with Oxford University. It was the brainchild of a group of intellectuals in London. The Philological Society thought it would be wonderful to create a proper dictionary since they were not pleased with the current state of English dictionaries. In June 1857 they created the “Unregistered Word Committee” to look for unlisted and/or poorly defined words in the current books. Instead of actually forming a list, by November Richard Trench had a report prepared called On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries. Not only were there seven egregious deficiencies, but the list of words that were not represented was longer than the list of words actually defined in current works.

On January 7, 1858 the society formally adopted the idea of creating their own comprehensive dictionary listing all the words as well as addressing other features current dictionaries lacked. Trench’s other duties did not leave him with enough time to direct the dictionary project and that job was turned over to Herbert Coleridge. He began sorting words into a 54-pigeon hole grid built for the task and some sample pages were published in April 1861. Coleridge died of tuberculosis that same month. He was 30 years old. Frederick Furnivall took over the leadership of the project but didn’t do well, losing papers and not staying focused. Finally, James Murray was given the task of editing the massive book.

By 1894 only 11 fascicles were published and they were only up to the letter E (but missing the letter D). Each book was about 300-350 pages long. Future fascicles would be only 64 pages long and accordingly sold for a cheaper rate. Books up to 192 pages saw print until World War I got in the way. Each book contained portions of letters and they were not published in order. So the 125th fascicle was not the Z words, but the last half of the W words – listing from Wise to the end. This saw print on April 19, 1928. Supplements have been added since with the last being published in 1997. The 22,000 page book might be a bit large to carry around and so there are electronic versions as well.

I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything. – Steven Wright

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

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

People are under the impression that dictionaries legislate language. What a dictionary does is keep track of usages over time. – Steven Pinker

Also on this day: Big Bangs – In 1814, the Mayon Volcano erupted.
Police – In 1920, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began working.
Grand Central Terminal – In 1913, Grand Central Terminal opened in New York City.
The Hajj – In 2004, a stampede took place at the holy pilgrimage.

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