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The Oxford English Dictionary:

The hardcopy version of the Oxford English Dictionary is currently 20 volumes in size along with 3 volumes of Additions.

Earlier this year, the OED went high-tech with the release of a cd-rom version of the full dictionary, along with an online subscriber service - making it available to almost anyone anywhere…even if you don't have the shelf space!

We at RLK! take pleasure in bringing you up to date with the latest news about THE BEST dictionary available in the world today.


At a glance...

1st Edition:

Work started in 1857 on the first edition. It was published from 1884-1928 in 10 volumes totalling 15,490 pages. It took 70 years to complete.

4 volumes of Supplements were published from 1972-1986, totalling 5,730 pages and took 30 years to complete.

2nd Edition:

First published in 1989, this massive 20 volume set amalgamated the first edition and supplements into a proper alphabetical sequence. It consists of 21,730 pages, weighs 62.6 kilos, has 291,500 entires with 47,100 main entries for obsolete words, 2,436,600 quotations, 139,900 pronunciations, 219,800 etymologies and the most quoted author is Shakespeare.

3 Additions volumes were published from 1993-1997

The Present:

A massive revision program started in 1990, with an estimated completion date of 2010. The estimated cost of the revision program is 34 million Pounds. The revision involved a staff of 80 lexicographers, researchers, systems engineers, and project managers plus 200 specialist consultants and numerous external contributors.

Every word and ever sense is being fully reviewed and updated for the first time in the massive project.

The next new edition of the hardcopy version of the OED is sheduled for 2010.

OED has editors all over the world, from the UK to the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Oxford English Dictionary Editors: James Murray and his heirs

James Augustus Henry Murray, original editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was born in 1837 at Hawick in Scotland. The son of a tailor, Murray believed that `knowledge is power' - a belief that guided him from his modest beginnings to a position as one of the greatest men of his times.

Despite leaving school at fourteen, he gained considerable skill in classical and modern languages, had a fascination for the Romany tongue, and was an amateur inventor of considerable ingenuity. He even famously tried to train the cows around his native parish to respond to being called in Latin!

Murray's early career was as a schoolmaster and bank clerk, but he always maintained a strong interest in words. His membership of the Philological Society of London allowed him to make many important contacts, including Frederick Furnivall (inspiration for Kenneth Grahame's Ratty, who corrects Toad's grammar in The Wind in the Willows). Furnivall was involved in the preparation of a dictionary under the auspices of the Society that aimed to do something not previously attempted, even by Dr Johnson: to record ALL of the English language. The ambition of the project was enormous, but bad luck and mismanagement bedevilled it almost from its beginnings. But eventually, in 1878, Murray was invited by Oxford University Press to create what later became known as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Installed in his specially constructed `Scriptorium' - a corrugated iron shed in the garden of his home - Murray started work in 1879. The Dictionary turned out to be far less advanced, and in a much poorer state, than he had been led to believe. Furnivall couldn't even remember where large parts of it were! Work on words beginning with 'Pa' was lost for years, and only finally discovered in an Irish stable where much of it had been used to light fires. Murray also had to sort through the six million pieces of word evidence already collected. This would have daunted most scholars, but Murray also decided to issue an 'Appeal' for readers, whose job it would be to read through scholarly and literary works to find new words and other material for the Dictionary.

In April 1879 Murray issued 2000 copies of 'An Appeal to the English- speaking and English-Reading Public' of Great Britain, America and the British Colonies, asking for a thousand readers for the next three years. The response was huge (see Murray's Appeal below), and Murray spent much of his time over the next thirty years corresponding with his eager band of helpers.

There were recurring arguments and confrontations over the years between Murray and Oxford University Press. At one point Murray came close to resigning from the project, and at another the Press nearly stopped publication. Though Murray always hoped that the publication of the Dictionary would coincide with his eightieth birthday, he died in 1915, having completed up to the letter T.

The Oxford English Dictionary was completed in its magnificent entirety in 1928. Murray's contribution to it still astounds. He set the standards and original model for the work, and personally edited half of it, and his amazing achievements have given future generations of editors a solid foundation on which they have been building ever since. But Murray would have been the very first to acknowledge the huge debt that the Dictionary owes to all of those readers who filled those first twelve volumes with nearly half a million words and almost two million quotations.

Murray's great Appeal of 1879:

James Murray issued 2000 copies of 'An Appeal to the English-speaking and English-Reading Public' in 1879. He asked for 1000 readers for the next three years. At the same time he issued lists of books that needed to be read, and of words for which information was urgently needed. The Appeal ran to four pages and was sent out to the press who eagerly passed on Murray's call. Booksellers, newspaper vendors, and librarians also gave them out to their customers.

Murray's instructions to his potential readers were precise: 'make a quotation for every word that strikes you as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way.' Because previous readers had gathered much more evidence for rare and obsolete words than for common words, Murray asked his new recruits: 'make as many quotations as you can for ordinary words, especially when they are used significantly, and tend by the context to explain or suggest their own meaning'. Murray was always very exact as to his requirements, explaining that the ideal would be when a reader could say: 'This is a capital quotation for, say, heaven, or half, or hug, or handful; it illustrates the meaning or use of the word; it is a suitable instance for the Dictionary.' Information was to be presented on half a sheet of notepaper (which was called a dictionary 'slip'), and the word in question, or 'catchword', was to be printed in the top left-hand corner.

All did not go smoothly. Some readers gave a great deal of enthusiasm to the project but little actual assistance, producing huge numbers of slips of which perhaps only one or two examples might be used. And as quotations poured into the Scriptorium, Murray begged readers to remember that 'other things being equal also, the shortest quotations...are best.' Funds were inadequate for a great deal of professional help, so Murray's eleven children were set to sort slips at a penny an hour. Millions of slips were checked and put in alphabetical order by the children, before Murray and his fellow scholars tackled each word, using the information supplied by their word-searching helpers.

One of Murray's most famous readers was Dr William Chester Minor. The relationship between the Calvinist lexicographer and the American convicted murderer, incarcerated for life in Broadmoor Asylum for Criminal Lunatics in Crowthorne, Berkshire, is now widely known, owing to Simon Winchester's best- selling book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (entitled The Professor and the Madman in the USA). Murray wrote that in terms of contribution to the Dictionary by volunteer readers 'the supreme position is certainly held by Dr W. C. Minor of Broadmoor. So enormous have been Dr Minor's contributions...that we could easily have illustrated the last four centuries from his quotations alone.' Much of Minor's work will still appear in the dictionary when its revision is completed almost a century after his death - a lasting monument to his efforts to turn the tragedy of his circumstances to profitable account.

OED Hardcopy:

The hardcopy version of the OED stretches almost 5 feet and is incased in 20 volumes, plus additions. The photo below is of a 1933 13-volume version of the dictionary which has, since then, been rebound in black. Purchasing information of the hardcopy version is available from the OED website.


The cd-rom now available allows you to browse through the Dictionary or focus on a particular category of text such as etymologies, definitions, or quotations. Alternatively, you can follow up a narrowly defined area of interest by using the powerful new proximity search to find words which occur near, before, or after one another in an entry. Whichever type of search you do, you will find what you need in seconds thanks to the easy-to-use design. Entries and search results can be ranked by date of their earliest supporting quotation in the Dictionary.

These screen shots show you the easy-to-use cd-rom interface, along with the detailed searches returned. (Click on the images for larger, clearer screens...)


Minimum System requirements: PC (no Mac version) with min. 200 MHz Pentium-class processor 32 Mb Ram (64 Mb recommended) 750Mb of hard disk space (required for indexes) 16 speed CD-ROM drive (32 speed recommended) Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0 SVGA Monitor: 800 x 600 pixels 16-bit (64k, high colour) setting recommended.

OED Online:

The Online Edition is available by annual subscription and includes the full contents of the Second Edition plus the three Additions volumes, plus quarterly releases of new and revised material from the revision programme.

· Search the equivalent of 23 volumes of information with speed and ease

· Display entries according to your needs - for the first time you can turn pronunciation, etymologies, variant spellings, and quotations on and off

· Gain unique online access to up to 1,000 new and revised words each quarter

· Compare revised entries with entries from the Second Edition to see how language has changed and how new scholarship has increased understanding of our linguistic and cultural heritage

· Keep up to date with exciting developments from the world's largest humanities research project through quarterly online newsletters

OED - The last word on words:


· The accepted authority on the evolution of the English language from 1150


· An unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of words - both present and past

· Traces the usage of words through 2.5 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources - from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts, wills, and cookery books

· The sequence of quotations shows the precise contexts in which the terms have been used, from the first recorded occurrence to the modern period


· Provides in-depth information on over half a million words

· Offers the best in etymological analysis

· Uses the International Phonetic Alphabet to show pronunciation

· Includes listings of variant spellings


Covers words from across the English-speaking world - from North America to Australasia

· Includes words taken into English from other languages

OED Strange Words:

These words are unique to the English speaking countries from which they originate and have been added to the Dictionary in 1999:

From the US:

Fashionista - a person in the fashion industry who popularizes or criticizes the latest trends

Racial Profiling - the alleged US police practice of seeking a certain quota of, for example, traffic tickets or roadside arrests from members of a particular ethnic group

From Canada:

Environpig - a new pig with environmentally friendly manure

Schlockey - a form of hockey played by children in schoolyards, with cut-off hockey sticks and a hockey puck on a 4x8 foot sheet of plywood

From New Zealand:

Sheddie - a hobbyist who pursues his or her hobby in a shed or other small building

Graf Art - term used by the art world to describe graffito art

From Australia:

Throwdown - a 250 ml bottle of beer

Secret Men's Business - activities, interests, hobbies, conversations, etc. relevant only to men. - from the Aboriginal term meaning rituals known only to initiated men

From South Aftrica:

Skate - disreputable person

Robot - traffic lights

From the UK:

Food Miles - distance covered by imported food

Pants - rubbish - as in 'the party was complete pants!'

Contact Details:

Find out more details about the whole range of OED products at www.oed.com.

 RLK! Spotlight On...
Past Features

 June 2000: James Ellroy Click here to view.
 May 2000: Reader's Window Click here to view.
 April 2000: Richard North Patterson Click here to view.
 March 2000: Ed Gorman Click here to view.
 February 2000: Harry Turtledove Click here to view.
 January 2000: J. N. Williamson Click here to view.
 December 99: Phil Rickman Click here to view.
 November 99: Paul Thomas Click here to view.
 October 99: James Lee Burke Click here to view.
 September 99: Leisure Books Click here to view.
 August 99: Gerald Seymour Click here to view.
 July 99: Brian Lumley Click here to view.
 June 99: Michael Connelly Click here to view.
 May 99: Stephen Laws Click here to view.
 April 99: Gemma O'Connor Click here to view.
 March 99: Simon Clark Click here to view.
 February 99: Obsidian Books Click here to view.
 January 99: John Case Click here to view.

 A new Feature added monthly so check here often...

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