Understanding the Editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, Part 1


The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps one of the most recognized dictionaries in the world. With past and present definitions of over 600,000 words, the OED touts itself as a "historical dictionary" that includes not only the current definition of a word, but also its history. According to the OED About page, the OED uses "3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books" to trace the history of the English language.

But how did the OED evolve? And what edition should you be using? Today we explore the beginnings of the OED through the 1989 Second Edition. Check back on Thursday for a deep dive into the current OED updating process.

The first edition of the OED, titled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, took 70 years to complete. In 1857, the Philological Society of London embarked on a quest to develop "a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times onward". It was originally planned as a four volume set that would take approximately 10 years to complete. The complexities and evolution of the English language, however, caused the editors to spend more time than anticipated on this project. The first part, or "fascicle", was published in 1884. The last volume was published in 1928 and the now ten volume set included over 400,000 words and phrases. Because of the large amount of time it took to complete this project, volumes may have different copyright dates.

Though the dictionary was "completed", language is continually evolving. Because of this, the editors recognized that to keep the dictionary relevant, it needed to be updated. A supplement was published in 1933 and the set was reprinted as twelve volumes. It was during this time that the title formally changed to the Oxford English Dictionary. This twelve volume set (minus the 1933 supplement) is available at Jenkins.

Work on a more substantial supplement began in 1957. This new Supplement was published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986. It included "much new information on the language (especially on twentieth century vocabulary)". It also added more scientific and technical terms as well as broadened its scope "to include considerably more words from North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean".

In 1982, plans were made to integrate the supplements into the main text as well as transform it into "a machine-readable resource" to usher it into the electronic age. This five year, $13.5 million project employed 120 keyboarders who typed each definition and 50 proofreaders who checked the work. Lexicographers not only "reviewed, corrected, and edited this new electronic dictionary", they also added 5,000 new words. This Second Edition (available at Jenkins) was published in 1989 and encompasses 20 volumes. In 1992, the OED was published in CD-ROM format. Not only was this a space-saving measure, it also "revolutionized the way people use the Dictionary to search and retrieve information" and would lead the way to the current electronic version of the OED.

To update the Second Edition, editors started by compiling and publishing "Additions to the Second Edition". Three volumes were published before the decision was made to move all updates to the online platform.

The Second Edition and its three Additions are the last updates available in print. But don't fear, the OED is still being updated! Check back on Thursday to find out about the OED online and its updating process.

Interested in exploring more of the history of the OED? Find their full history online: History of the OED, Rewriting the OED, OED Editions, and Dictionary Milestones.

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