The Oxford English Dictionary and how it came to be

Dec 20, 2016
Way back in 1857 the Philological Society - now the oldest society in the UK devoted to the study of languages - decided it was time the world had a proper English dictionary to replace the ones of mainly medieval origin in use at the time. Little did they know how difficult and time consuming it would be and how long it would take to complete. Unfathomably, it wasn’t until 1879 that a start was made to compile it.

A remarkable man called James Murray - later Sir James - was appointed by The Oxford University Press as the dictionary’s first editor. Murray, the eldest son of a Scottish draper, was indeed an extraordinary man.  He was said to have ‘a veracious appetite for learning’ and although he was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen, because his parents couldn’t afford to send him to private school, he became a teacher at Hawick Grammar School only three years later! During the next few years he was said to have taught himself to speak, read, and write more than 30 languages, including Arabic, Latin and Anglo-Saxon.  He also had 11 children with his wife Ada – a busy man!

Oxford English DictionaryBack to the dictionary. It was originally estimated (guessed) that the project would take ten years to complete.  But despite Murray’s gargantuan intellect and work ethic, five years into the project he and his team had only reached the word ‘ant’. It was time to reconsider the schedule.  The problem was the complexities of the English language and the fact that it is continually evolving.  Murray and his team not only had to record new words entering the language, but also take notes and record new meanings of existing words. At the same time they were trying to track the development of the language dating back to Saxon times.

Work continued for the next forty years with Murray now heading up a large team with several sub-editors. The dictionary was completed in 1928, but instead of the estimated 6,400 pages in four volumes, the work ran to 10 volumes and contained over 400,000 words and phrases.  Sadly, James Murray didn’t live to see the completion of his great work having died in 1915, but his dedication, scholarliness and commitment resulted in what is now the definitive authority on the English language.  

David JordanDavid Jordan, Director, The Words Workshop