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A short history of Oxford dictionaries

Oxford is famous for, among other things, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which has been the last word on words for more than a century. It is the largest dictionary of English, covering the history of the language, and aiming to include all vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 ad) onward, along with earlier Old English words that have remained in use.

The OED was originally issued in instalments (called fascicles) between 1884 and 1928. A second edition was published in 1989 and is currently available in print as twenty volumes. A full and thorough revision of the whole dictionary is under way, and the current text may be accessed online at

From A to ant and beyond

The project was originally planned by the Philological Society of London, who decided in 1857 that existing English language dictionaries were unsatisfactory and called for a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times onward. In 1879 the Society made an agreement with Oxford University Press to begin work on a New English Dictionary (as the Oxford English Dictionary was then known), and Scottish schoolmaster James Murray was recruited as editor.

This new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work, and it was estimated that the task would be finished in approximately ten years. Five years later, when Murray and his colleagues had reached only as far as the word ‘ant’, they realized it was time to reconsider their schedule. It was not surprising that the project was taking longer than anticipated. Not only is the English language formidably complicated, but it also never stops evolving. Murray and his colleagues had to keep track of new words and new meanings of existing words at the same time that they were trying to examine the previous seven centuries of the language’s development.

Smaller is good too

The great OED, however, is not the only Oxford dictionary. The single volumes that most people are familiar with are descendants of the first small Oxford dictionary, which itself came into being when the OED was still unfinished. In 1906, when work on the OED had reached the letter M, Humphrey Milford of Oxford University Press drew up a plan for two small dictionaries which would draw on the riches of the incomplete historical work.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary was compiled by Henry Watson Fowler and his brother Frank from their cottage on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. The first edition was published in 1911, priced at three shillings and six pence and containing 1,041 pages of dictionary text and around 38,000 headwords. The new dictionary was warmly received: a review of the time called the book ‘a marvel of condensation, achieved by skilful hands’, while another asserted that it was ‘the best small dictionary extant’, being ‘literally without a rival’.

The Concise went on to become one of the most famous and successful English dictionaries in the world. For the eleventh edition (2004) its title was changed to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. The twelfth, centenary edition was published in 2011: it contains 1,682 pages of dictionary text and 66,500 headwords.

The Oxford range now stretches from the two-volume historical Shorter OED, which was first published in 1933, to the tiny Oxford English Mini Dictionary (first edition 1981). In 1998 a completely new title appeared: a new single-volume dictionary larger than the Concise. The huge advances in digital technology meant that literally millions of words of real text could now be processed and analysed in a matter of seconds. Access to large databases of language and new ways of looking at the English language led to the production of a new dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary of English. Now called simply the Oxford Dictionary of English and in its third edition (2010), it is the main source of the current Oxford range.

Oxford dictionaries are now compiled and updated on a database accessible over the Internet from anywhere in the world, and may be consulted either online or as print books. Drawing on the evidence of language use provided by the two-billion-word Oxford English Corpus and the Oxford Reading Programme, editors seek to write definitions that are as clear, accurate, and up to date as possible, ensuring that Oxford’s texts remain the world’s most trusted dictionaries.

A new era

Publishing online has, of course, thrown up countless new possibilities. Space is no longer as big a concern – the free dictionary included on this site is regularly updated, with new words being added every quarter. This is not a million miles away from the way in which the OED was initially published in its regular instalments, even if the medium is quite different. What those editors could not have conceived of is all of the extra content that can be included, whether it be offering advice on thorny grammatical problems, giving guidance on effective writing and spelling, or offering word-based articles and interactive quizzes on the OxfordWords blog. Or indeed the immediate interaction with the readership that can take place with the advent of social media. Quite what James Murray, Henry Fowler, and co. would have made of the Internet and the effect it has not only on the way we produce our dictionary content but also on the new words that enter the English language is an interesting question to ponder. Given how forward-thinking they all were, we’d like to think they would have welcomed these changes gladly.