Saturday, January 29, 2011

February 1, 1884 --- The O.E.D.

The first volume (A-Ant) of the Oxford English Dictionary is published by the University Press.  The project was begun by the Philological Society in 1857, setting as its goal "a dictionary worthy of the English language." The Society pronounced that "the first requirement of every lexicon is that it should contain every word occuring in the language of the literature it professes to illustrate."

After two decades of preparatory work, an editor was chosen to handle the monumental task of organizing the material. The task was put in the hands of James A.H. Murray, a north London school master and an active philologist.  Murray contrived an iron "Scriptorium" in his backyard in Mill Hill which he "fitted with blocks of pigeon holes, 1029 in number." He reported to the Society: "With a considerable body of assistants, I have been engaged ... as from all appearances I will be for many months to come, in turning out, examining, sorting and bestowing these materials."  Eventually he moved to larger quarters on Banbury Road in Oxford but never abandoned his pigeon-holes.

The verb to set, for example, with 54 entries soon grew to three times that number, filling 18 pages in the dictionary.  Murray wearily declared, "the language seems not to contain a more perplexing word than set."  While Volume 2 (Ant-Batten) followed quickly, Murray's estimate that the work could be finished in as little as eleven years proved well off the mark.  Eleven years later, the dictionary was only in print up to the letter F.  That volume, coincidentally, contained the (then?) longest word in the English language: floccinaucinihilipilification or the process of estimating something as worthless. 

Murray came under pressure to speed up the work but resisted delegating the task to others.  A friend advised, "The Society won't get its Dicty so well done as if you did it all but it will see the Dicty finisht in 10 or 12 years from now and you alive to work on."  The final volume was not released until 1928.  Murray was knighted by King Edward VII but died in 1915 long before the work was finished.  He had personally edited more than half the 15,487 pages of the completed dictionary.

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