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Preface to the Second Edition (1989)

The history of the Oxford English Dictionary (continued)

A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, 1957-1986[7]

After the Second World War the Delegates of the University Press decided to re-establish a headquarters for the Dictionary in Oxford, and to prepare a revised version of the 1933 Supplement. In the end, this proved to be an even greater work than that which circumstances had forbidden in 1928, an addition to the main Dictionary of one-third of its size, taking almost thirty years to prepare. But this was not foreseen at the time. The original intention was simply to amplify the existing Supplement in a single-volume work of some 1,275 pages which would take account of the lexical development in English throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1957, R. W. Burchfield, a New Zealander who was then Lecturer in English Language and Literature at Christ Church, Oxford, and formerly a Rhodes Scholar at the University, accepted the invitation of the Delegates to edit the Supplement. It was envisaged that this new Supplement would take about seven years to complete.

At this stage, the editorial office of the Dictionary was located on one floor of a private house, No. 40 Walton Crescent, adjacent to the University Press's printing works and to the Clarendon Press itself. The presence in Oxford of Dr C. T. Onions provided valuable continuity between the OED and the projected new Supplement, and at the time it was still possible for the editor to receive the advice and encouragement of a small number of people who had worked on or for the Dictionary in other capacities. However, the lapse of some twenty years since the disbanding of the original OED staff meant that one of the first duties incumbent on the new editor was the selection and training of new assistants. In the days of the Dictionary itself, Sir James Murray had often found the recruitment of suitable staff to be a problematic and uncertain affair, and so it proved again. Gradually, though, the initial difficulties began to subside, and early work in the preparation of the new Supplement began to take a steadier course.

The raw material for a dictionary on historical principles - a file of quotations excerpted from the literature of the period treated - was almost entirely lacking. Among the material left behind after work on the 1933 Supplement there was indeed a collection of quotations numbering about 140,000, few of which had appeared in the Supplement itself, which included illustrative examples of words excluded in 1933 because they were not fully established at the time. Though useful, these materials fell far short of what was needed, both in quantity and range: the whole literature of the eventful quarter-century since 1933 had to be sifted from scratch. In 1957 an extensive reading programme was inaugurated, covering printed sources of all kinds relating to late nineteenth- and twentieth-century English. The sources included all the important literary works, as well as many hundreds of popular titles, a wide range of scientific books and journals, and large numbers of newspapers and periodicals, ranging from the national press to the publications of the 'underground'. Numerous works containing lexicographical information, such as Notes and Queries, American Speech, and many dictionaries of regionalisms, slang, jargon, and technical language, were converted into the form of dictionary slips. In addition, several valuable private collections were submitted to the Press, and these were also added to the quotation files. Thanks to these and subsequent valuable donations, to the comprehensiveness of the reading programme, to the alertness of the departmental staff in their private reading, and to the regular contributions of scholars and voluntary readers, the quotation file grew to contain at least two million, and possibly three million, slips by the time of the completion of the Supplement, and proved an excellent resource from which to make the initial selection of items for inclusion in the dictionary and from which to document the history of each term up to the present day.

At the same time it was necessary to build up a reference library of books in the department to which staff could turn for additional information about items for which entries were being prepared. Some volumes from the 1933 Supplement library were brought together again, and a further 7,000 or so books, especially dictionaries, were gradually acquired by the department. These consisted of books and periodicals dealing with the development of English in Great Britain, America, the Commonwealth, and elsewhere; a large collection of dictionaries (both English and bilingual), volumes on slang, dialect, etymology, and as many of the subject areas treated by the dictionary as it was convenient to house in the editorial offices, besides many of the novels, plays, and collections of published diaries and letters, which had been 'read' for the dictionary's quotation file and were at hand when quotations included in the dictionary needed checking.

By the early 1960s, it was clear that the development of the English language throughout the world had been much more rapid than either the Delegates of the Press or the Editor of the Supplement had at that time considered, and that the Supplement would occupy many more pages than had been originally intended. The paramount importance of reassessing the projected size of the Supplement had been highlighted by the publication in 1961 of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which illustrated dramatically the proliferation of new vocabulary in North America and Great Britain in the early and mid-twentieth century. Webster's Second had appeared just one year after the earlier OED Supplement, in 1934, and offered a perfect basis for comparison in terms of the rate of change in the language, bringing home sharply to the Editor and his staff the necessity of improving considerably the OED's own coverage of American English, and, pari passu, other overseas varieties of English. The original plans were revised to allow for a Supplement spanning three (and eventually four) volumes, concentrating much more extensively on the vocabulary of North America, the West Indies, Australia, and the other English-speaking countries of the world. The Editor drew a parallel between the current state of affairs on the Supplement and Dryden's remarks in the Preface to the Fables (1700):

'Tis with a Poet, as with a Man who designs to build, and is very exact, as he supposes, in casting up the Cost beforehand: But, generally speaking, he is mistaken in his Account, and reckons short of the Expence he first intended: He alters his Mind as the work proceeds, and will have this or that Convenience more, of which he had not thought when he began.[8]

A substantial research base had been built up by the mid-1960s. Besides assistant editors and researchers in Oxford, the Supplement soon had permanent members of staff working as researchers in the major libraries in London and Washington, and links with language centres and with other libraries throughout the world. A panel of specialist consultants was established to read and comment on individual entries in galley proof, and another panel of scholars and writers to read through continuous sections of galley proof with a critical eye. A radical departure from the policy adopted by the editors of the original Dictionary was the appointment from 1968 of graduates in scientific subjects, who took general responsibility for the drafting of entries in these disciplines. The necessity of taking this step had been impressed on the Editor as a result of his visit to the editorial offices of Merriam-Webster in 1967. Editorial work on the Supplement began in earnest in 1964, and the first instalment of copy (A-alpha) was delivered to the University Printer on 27 May 1965. From this point until the completion of the Supplement editorial staff were involved simultaneously in the preparation of copy for press, and in dealing with proofs. At first the University Printer, and subsequently (with considerable overlap) Messrs. William Clowes and Son. Ltd., of Colchester, and, in the final stages, Latimer Trend Ltd., of Plymouth, were engaged in the typesetting of the Supplement.

The first volume of the Supplement (A-G) was published in 1972, and immediately established itself as a worthy sequel to the original Dictionary. Soon after its publication the Editor was honoured with the title of Commander of the British Empire for his services to scholarship. The dictionary was fortunate in attracting the interest of several scholars who began by reviewing the work in the academic press, and then became valuable consultants to the dictionary itself. Gradually more staff were appointed to the work of completing the Supplement, and by the mid-seventies some twenty-five people were involved in one or other editorial task, drafting the initial entries, reviewing the work of assistants, verifying bibliographical information, or conducting essential library research. The second volume (H-N), in which was included a dedication of the whole work to Her Majesty the Queen, appeared in 1976; by this time the editorial offices of the Dictionary were no longer large enough to contain the expanding number of staff, quotations, and research materials necessary for its preparation. Furthermore, the scope of the Dictionary department had expanded under the Chief Editorship of Dr Burchfield to include not simply work on the Supplement, but also the compilation and revision of the other Oxford Dictionaries, and for a time, a number of bilingual dictionaries as well. The department removed, therefore, to more extensive offices in St Giles', Oxford, in 1978; 1982 saw the publication of the third volume (O-Scz); and the Supplement was completed after twenty-nine years of editorial effort with the publication of the final volume in 1986.


Ian Hay's First Hundred Thousand (1915) contains the observation that 'the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language will have to be revised and enlarged when this war is over'. This fact had not escaped the notice of the Dictionary's editors, and they made ironic use of the quotation as evidence for the use of the adverb when (sense 4b).

The Delegates of the University Press had taken the decision in the 1920s to produce a Supplement which would concentrate on new vocabulary (embracing new words, new meanings of existing words, collocations and combinations, phrases, etc.); as plans were laid for the new Supplement in the 1950s to supersede the 1933 volume, it was again thought that the scope of the work should be restricted primarily to neologisms, thus leaving open the possibility of revising the main dictionary for the future.

Within this context, the principles by which entries for the new Supplement were prepared were inherited in most particulars from the original dictionary: the selection of material was based primarily upon a large quotation file collected as a result of reading an extensive range of sources; the style of definition, along with the critical apparatus (in the form of semantic and syntactic labelling, sense division, etc.) was derived closely from that employed in the parent work. However, although it did concern itself almost exclusively with additions to the language in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many antedatings of material in the OED had been collected in the Dictionary's files over the years, and it was decided that, since the work was intended to update the historical record for the modern period in general, the new Supplement should include as many as possible of those antedatings which related to this period (for which 1820 was at first taken as the notional beginning, later 1750). Important though these pre-datings were, they still represented only a small fraction of the dictionary, which was primarily concerned with new lexical items.

The principal objective of the Supplement was to include all those standard words and senses which were new to the language in Britain since the period of the Dictionary. This objective was soon expanded to include as many of the standard terms from other varieties of English (notably North American English) as could be identified by the reading programme or by other resources. In the event, the broadening of the reading programme to encompass a much greater proportion of the written English of North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and other regions than had been the case for the OED itself had a profound effect upon the eventual coverage of these areas which the Supplement was able to achieve. In earlier years, Sir William Craigie had advocated the preparation of historical dictionaries treating specific varieties of English around the world. Largely as a result of his pioneering work in this field, a number of scholarly historical dictionaries, such as the Dictionary of American English, the Scottish National Dictionary, and the Dictionary of Canadian English, had been compiled, which assisted the preparation of the Supplement in two ways. First, they provided additional (often very detailed) evidence for items selected for the Supplement; secondly, their existence allowed the Supplement to omit many purely local items, on the grounds that entering them would simply duplicate material that was readily available elsewhere.

The standard vocabulary of British English was already well covered by the existing Dictionary. As well as recent additions to this, and wider coverage of common terms from the other varieties of English, much of the material prepared for the Supplement consisted of the scientific, technical, slang, dialectal, and other words which had passed into common use in the academic or technical fields, or in the social culture or geographical area, to which they belonged. This simply extended the policy of the 1933 Supplement into the age of computing, space technology, popular music, and the other areas of innovation and development by which the second and third quarters of the twentieth century had been characterized. Furthermore, whereas the OED had included nearly all the vocabulary, including hapax legomena, of important medieval and Renaissance authors such as Chaucer, Gower, and Shakespeare, the Supplement followed the more limited policy of presenting liberally, but not exhaustively, the occasional vocabulary of a wide range of major modern authors.

There is sometimes opposition to the appearance in dictionaries of words which are considered either generally offensive or opprobrious to a particular group. The arguments run, on the one hand, that to allow such usages into a dictionary is equivalent to sanctioning their use, and may even bring them to the notice of a wider public than would otherwise have been the case; and on the other hand, that to exclude such items would be tantamount to corrupting the historical record of the language, and would represent the first stage in a process of regulating the dictionary to fit the ethos of the times rather than the facts of the language. After very careful consideration of the matter, it was decided to admit to the Supplement the sexually taboo words formerly thought too gross and vulgar to be given countenance within the covers of a dictionary. This was done long after such vocabulary had been admitted to areas of general literature, and on the understanding that inclusion of these terms in a scholarly dictionary did not necessarily free dictionary editors to add them to dictionaries prepared for other audiences. Two of the most notorious of these terms happened to fall in the alphabetical range covered by the first volume of the Supplement (1972), where they appeared with a wide range of other colloquial and coarse expressions referring to sexual and excretory functions.

A second major area which involved the treatment of potentially offensive vocabulary concerned racial and religious terms. Consideration of this led to the formulation of certain general lexicographical guidelines for the Supplement: namely, that (a) offensiveness to a particular group was inadequate as the only ground for the exclusion of any word or class of words from the OED; (b) it was therefore desirable to enter new racial and religious terms however opprobrious they might seem to those to whom they were applied and often to those who had to use them, or however controversial the set of beliefs professed by the members of such groups; (c) it was also desirable, in order to avoid misunderstanding and consequent hostility, that the antiquated historical records of some words in this category already treated in the OED should be brought up to date.

Similarly, on the question of proprietary terminology, the Supplement endeavoured to follow a policy which safeguarded scholarly standards while not doing anything to imperil the proprietary rights of the owners of such terms. The proprietary status of each term likely to fall into this category was investigated thoroughly in Patent Office records in Britain and America, and elsewhere if this seemed to be necessary. If a term was found to be proprietary this was stated in the definition, and the earliest reference to the application or registration of the name in the official literature was cited as one of the illustrative quotations in the completed entry. It was sometimes found that a proprietary name had passed into general use: this fact was also related in the entry.

The editorial process

A brief description of the various processes involved in the preparation of entries for the first volume of the Supplement (1972) may be found on pp. xvi-xvii of the Introduction to that work. For subsequent volumes a broadly similar method was followed, but as the scope of the work expanded to encompass more diverse material and as the size of the Supplement's staff grew to accommodate this, certain modifications were introduced to ensure that the work was conducted in the most efficient manner. The following account contains a slightly more detailed description of the practices that prevailed at the completion of the Supplement.

i. Collection of material. The raw material serving as a basis for the selection and preparation of entries in the Supplement consisted of the quotations which were collected as a result of a programme of directed reading established in 1957. Many illustrative quotations were also supplied by contributors outside the confines of the reading programme. All quotations were filed alphabetically according to catchword, and were available to staff working on the Supplement, to those working on other departmental projects, and to other interested scholars.

ii. Sorting. In order to establish which entries should be prepared for the Supplement, the entire quotation file was inspected section by section - in the early years by the editor; subsequently by his senior colleagues. Cards illustrating words and meanings selected for inclusion in the Supplement were extracted from the file, and grouped into 'bundles' (each consisting of between thirty and fifty items), ready for drafting. The primary selection was made by comparing the contents of the file with the relevant section of the OED, along with that of the 1933 Supplement which the new Supplement was to supersede. In addition, note was taken of terms not recorded (or sparsely attested) in the quotation file, but which seemed to deserve inclusion in the Supplement on the basis of their appearance in other dictionaries. Cards representing items already covered by the OED, as well as items considered too ephemeral or otherwise irrelevant to the Supplement, and pre-datings from before the modern period, were refiled in a separate sequence for possible later use. 'Bundles' of material were then handed to editorial assistants for drafting.

iii. Drafting. This process involved the preparation of a first draft of a dictionary entry for all of the items in a 'bundle'. Each assistant editor was expected to prepare complete entries, i.e. to ascertain the pronunciation and etymology of each new term where appropriate, to compose a definition, and to select and verify the quotations used. Clearly, the better an entry was prepared at this stage, the less work was needed in revising and editing it later. During this process the material available from the quotation file was augmented by further quotations found in the department's library of dictionaries, concordances, and other reference works. Often it was necessary for additional research work to be done in other libraries, such as the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the British Library in London, the Library of Congress in Washington, and elsewhere, in order to trace earlier and further quotations and to provide more detailed information for the definition. This work was normally conducted by library researchers appointed for the purpose. The library researchers were also responsible for verifying quotations from sources not available in the departmental library. All general items were drafted by non-specialist assistant editors; scientific, natural history, and social science terms were passed to specialist staff for drafting. Dictionary entries were prepared in handwritten form on 6 x 4 in. slips; a drafted entry would typically consist of head-cards containing the relevant headword, pronunciation and etymology where appropriate, the definition, and other information, followed by other cards bearing the quotations selected to illustrate the entry. When the entries were complete (and all outstanding library research had been returned) they were filed in the main alphabetical sequence of copy in readiness for subsequent review by senior staff.

iv. Revision. In order to allow the Editor to proceed at an efficient pace through the material it was necessary to interpose a revision stage between the initial drafting and the final editing. At first, this involved the incorporation by senior editors of scientific and technical drafting into the main sequence of entries (with concomitant adjustments to sense ordering, etc.), and revising long and complex entries. Subsequently this was extended to the inspection (and, if necessary, revision) of each entry. Quotations recently added to the quotation file were considered, and alterations made to entries in the light of these; occasionally new entries were prepared if the fresh material warranted this.

v. Editing. The final stage of entry preparation was, naturally, the sole responsibility of the Editor. Every entry was inspected minutely, further revisions were carried out, and delicate decisions (as in the treatment of 'sensitive' items, the balance in size between entries from different disciplines, etc.) were made in order to impose an editorial uniformity on the published work.

vi. Bibliographical collation. In the course of drafting, editorial staff endeavoured to ensure that the bibliographical details of works cited were correct. But at this stage it was the task of the bibliographer to establish consistency in respect of the date of publication, 'short title', and other matters. For this purpose an index of verified citation styles, consisting of the majority of the works cited in the Supplement, was maintained throughout the compilation of the work. From it, a bibliography of the works most frequently cited in the Supplement was published at the end of Volume IV.

Bibliographical verification was carried out either on the edited slips or, when publication schedules dictated, on corrected galley proofs.

vii. Proofs and the use of specialist consultants. Copy for the Supplement was sent in regular instalments to the printer, from whom multiple sets of galley proof for each range were received in corresponding instalments for further review.

Up to this point, the entries had been compiled entirely by the departmental staff; at this stage, they were submitted to outside scrutiny. Entries relating to particular disciplines or geographical regions were examined by consultants with specialist knowledge: they were often able to suggest modifications or to supply earlier or more appropriate attestations of the term under consideration. Furthermore, several complete sets of each batch of galley proofs were sent to critical readers for general comments. The improvements suggested by such independent experts were vital in maintaining the standard of Dictionary entries. These comments and suggestions were incorporated by the Editor or by his senior colleagues, along with the routine proof corrections. Quotations which had gathered in the files since the preparation of the copy were inspected, and in the light of them further alterations and additions were made. The corrected galleys were then reviewed by the Editor, and returned to the printer for setting in pages.

One last important process was carried out in page proof: the verification of cross-references. Every cross-reference in the batch of page proofs was checked against its target in the OED, the published volumes of the Supplement, the material in proof, or the manuscript copy. After the second round of page proof, the material was finally passed for press. By the time that the last pages of Volume IV were undergoing these final procedures, the preparation of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary had begun.

7. The Editor's own account of this project may be read in the prefatory sections of the four volumes of the Supplement, especially the Introduction to Volume I (A-G), on which the present narrative has drawn. [return]

8. Supplement, Volume II. p. vii. [return]