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When W (yes, W) marked the end of the Dictionary

On 19 April 1928 the final section, or fascicle, of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Perhaps surprisingly, it covered the words in the range Wise to Wyzen; the fascicle dealing with X, Y, and Z had been published as long ago as 1921. This was because, for many years, there had been several different teams of lexicographers working on different letters, as a way of getting through the alphabet more quickly. The desire to speed things up was understandable; after all, the Dictionary had been in preparation since the 1850s.

Celebration: Oxford-style

In fact the completion of the OED had been much anticipated, and by the spring of 1928 public interest began to build all over the English-speaking world. In March the great American humourist, H. L. Mencken, greeted the news of the impending completion of ‘that behemoth of all books’ with a prediction that Oxford would celebrate it with ‘military exercises, boxing matches between the dons, orations in Latin, Greek, English, and the Oxford dialect, yelling combats between the different colleges, and a series of medieval drinking bouts’. He envisaged ‘discharges of artillery’ and ‘displays of fireworks’, and ‘barbecues in the yards of Brasenose and Corpus Christi’. In the event Oxford marked the occasion rather more sedately, with an exhibition at the Bodleian Library illustrating the history of dictionaries. Charles Onions, one of the two surviving Editors of the Dictionary, wrote a celebratory article in the London Times, beginning with the words ‘This year, whatever else it may be, is the Year of the Dictionary.’ The other Editor, William Craigie, was in Washington, presenting a copy of the completed Dictionary to President Coolidge. (A copy was also formally presented to King George V.) The day was also marked by the arrival of a congratulatory telegram from the editors of the OED’s Dutch counterpart, the great Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal—which would not be completed for another seventy years.

A bigger shindig

Rather more planning was required for the biggest celebration of all, a grand dinner in Goldsmiths’ Hall, which took place on 6 June, in a week which also saw the conferring of honorary degrees on the surviving Editors in both Oxford and Cambridge. Among the numerous speeches made at the Goldsmiths’ dinner was one by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who acclaimed the Dictionary as the book he would choose to be marooned on a desert island with (over a decade before the radio programme Desert Island Discs was devised). There were further celebrations to come, including the bestowal of a knighthood on William Craigie on 28 June.

But even before these celebrations—indeed, some months before the publication of the final fascicle—work had begun on the next phase of the OED: a one-volume Supplement, intended to deal with the new words and meanings that had come into the language in the four decades or so since the publication of the Dictionary’s first fascicle in 1884. The Oxford lexicographers had been drafting entries for new words beginning with A since August of the previous year, and the first batch of copy, for words from aasvogel to actinize, had gone to press in February. Compilation of the Supplement—which was completed in 1933—was thus well under way even as the final fascicle was being published. Craigie, Onions, and their assistants would have been well aware that a historical lexicographer’s work is never done. But 19 April is still a date for celebration.

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