Happy Birthday, Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary bannerAs a child, I was a voracious reader (still am), and one thing my mom told me, whenever I came across a word I did not know and would ask her what it meant or how it was pronounced, was “Look it up in the dictionary.”  (“Dictionary” was changed to “encyclopedia” if it was a research issue of a subject) After a few dozen times I got the hint and just naturally reached for the dictionary whenever I needed to pronounce of define a word.

Most people did not think this was normal, lol. I touched on this story about 6 years ago in this post. One Sunday, when I was 7 or 8 I think, we were going to visit a couple my parents knew and my mom said, “They don’t have any children, so bring yourself something to do while we’re visiting.”

I, of course, brought a book I was reading.

While they sat at the dining room table visiting I sat on the couch in the living room and read my book. At some point I came across a word I did not know and so I walked into the dining room and politely asked the woman if she had a dictionary I could borrow. She said she thought she did, but what did I need it for? When I told her she looked at my mom with astonishment on her face, got up to find the dictionary and returned in a few seconds and handed it to me wordlessly. Then, as I walked back to the living room, I heard her tell my mom that she thought I was just an amazing little boy, why didn’t every child do this, etc., lol.

Granted the dictionary in our home, most other homes and the elementary school library was a Webster’s Dictionary. But in junior high school, to my weird, nerdy delight, I discovered the Oxford English Dictionary. Today marks the first date of publication of the first part of the first edition (which only spanned the words, “A” to “Ant”) in 1884.

Set of Oxford English Dictionary

Here’s some wonderful information about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary from The Writer’s Almanac:


The Philological Society of London had conceived the idea for a new dictionary almost 30 years earlier, back in 1857, and then in 1879 they worked out an agreement with Oxford University Press to publish their ambitious project. The Society felt that the English dictionaries that existed at the time were “incomplete and deficient,” and they wished to write a new dictionary that would take into account the way the English language had developed from Anglo-Saxon times.

The dictionary, they proposed, would take 10 years to complete, fill four volumes, and amount to 6,400 pages. They were halfway (five years) into the project when they published the first volume on this day in 1884, and they’d only completed from “A” to “Ant.” In the end, the dictionary took 70 years (not 10) to complete, and it filled 10 volumes (not four) and it was 15,490 pages, more than twice as long as they’d originally estimated to their publisher. The last volume of the first edition of the dictionary was published in 1928. It defined more than 400,000 word forms, and it used 1,861,200 quotations to help illustrate these definitions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a Supplement to the OED was published in four volumes. And then, in 1989, a big Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It’s the one you’re most likely to find in a library today. Its 21,730 pages fill up 20 volumes, and it weighs nearly 140 pounds. There are more than 615,000 definitions for words in this edition, which also contains 2,436,600 quotations.

In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Now the dictionary is online, where it’s constantly under revision.


Most of us can make do on a daily basis with a Webster’s, but for those who wish to delve deeper into words, the Oxford English Dictionary is the gold standard.


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