This Day in History (1-Feb-1884) – The first fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary is published

In 1857, members of the Philological Society rued the lack of a competent dictionary to keep up with the changes since Anglo-Saxon times and the highlight the nuances of the English language.  In 1879, after almost two decades of preparation, the Philological Society tied up with the Oxford University Press to compile and edit the dictionary. A Scottish schoolmaster and an enterprising philologist from London, James Murray was selected to be the editor.

The new dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would include all English language vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 AD) onward, plus some earlier words if they had continued to be used into Middle English. It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. Five years down the road, when Murray and his colleagues had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’, they realized it was time to reconsider their schedule. Not only are the complexities of the English language formidable, but it also never stops evolving. Murray and his Dictionary 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.

On February 1, 1884, the first fascicle of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles was published. The volume contained all entries starting from A till the word Ant. The entire project took 40 years to complete instead of 10 years. Holding over 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes, the full New English Dictionary was complete in April 1928 when the 125th and final fascicle was published.  Sadly, Murray did not live to see the completion of his great work; he died in 1915. However the Dictionary had taken its place as the ultimate authority on the language. Nevertheless, as soon as the original ten volumes of the New English Dictionary were completed, Craigie and Onions, the two editors still involved with the project, began updating it. In 1933, a single-volume Supplement to the Dictionary was published. Also at this time the original Dictionary was reprinted in twelve volumes and the work was formally given its current title, the Oxford English Dictionary.


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