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The Oxford English Dictionary

Biography

What came before the Oxford English Dictionary? How much planning went into the first edition? Find out with our O.E.D. biography.

The Basics

England got in on the dictionary game a little late. There were dictionaries of the national language on the continent, compiled by august state institutions, but it took until the 18th century before the great novelist and critic Dr Samuel Johnson was invited to assemble an English equivalent.

The Basics
Dr Johnson's Dictionary

Dr Johnson's Dictionary

In the 18th century, both the French and Italians had massive dictionaries, produced by academies set up for the purpose. In England, the lack of an equivalent dictionary was seen by many people as a source of national shame. In 1746, a 38-year-old writer called Samuel Johnson decided to do something about it…

America's First Dictionary

"You're much too much and just too "very very" /To ever be in Mr Webster's dictionary'', wrote the great American songwriter Johnny Mercer in "Too Marvelous For Words" (1937). Mr Webster was Noah Webster, a Connecticut lawyer and schoolteacher, who published an "American Dictionary of the English Language" in 1828. In the US, this would replace Dr Johnson's great work as the definitive dictionary.

America's First Dictionary
The First O.E.D.

The First O.E.D.

Our story begins in 1857, when Richard Chenevix Trench presented a paper to the London Philological Society, in which he argued that the existing dictionaries were inadequate. In the first place, they were much too small.

How it was Compiled

The creation of the O.E.D. was a colossal undertaking, which took more than 70 years from start to finish. Unlike Samuel Johnson's "Dictionary", this was a collective effort, with around 2000 volunteers contributing quotations on paper slips illustrating the uses of words. Eventually, more than five million slips would be collected.

How it was Compiled