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The history of the OED Appeals

The efforts of members of the public have been at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary for over 150 years. The Dictionary couldn’t have been written without these contributions. We are calling on language lovers everywhere to help us trace the history of words whose origins are shrouded in mystery, with a brand new Appeals area of OED.com.

The OED’s record of appealing to the public for assistance stretches back to its very beginnings—to a time when the project not only had nothing to do with Oxford, but wasn’t even a dictionary.

The very first public appeal

The very first appeal to the public was made by The Philological Society in 1857. They asked for volunteers to undertake to read particular books and copy out quotations illustrating ‘unregistered’ words and meanings — items not recorded in other dictionaries — that could be included in a supplement. Several dozen volunteers came forward, and the quotations began to pour in.

Within months, however, they realized that no mere supplement could do justice to the material that was being sent in. And so, instead, in 1858 the Society decided to compile a new comprehensive dictionary of English — ‘a new and more Scientific Dictionary than any at present existing’ — and to issue a new, more general appeal for help. The image above shows the pamphlet issued by the Society, entitled ‘Proposal for the Publication of a New English Dictionary’, which called upon Englishmen to ‘come forward and write their own Dictionary for themselves’, and gave detailed instructions about how people could help.

Appeal for American Readers

In August 1859 the first American to become seriously involved with the project, George P. Marsh, issued another appeal for assistance, this time directed specifically at Americans. Marsh’s appeal informed his fellow countrymen that ‘the entire body of English literature belonging to the eighteenth century has been reserved for their perusal’ — on the basis that texts from earlier periods were rather harder to get hold of outside Britain.

James Murray’s new army of volunteers

In the spring of 1879 Oxford University Press undertook publication of the Dictionary with a new Editor, James Murray. He immediately realized that an army of volunteers had to be recruited, and within weeks of his appointment had issued ‘An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public’. Copies of the new appeal were sent to all corners of the globe, and new readers began to come forward in their hundreds, and eventually thousands.

Once again an American was persuaded to take on the task of co-ordinating the work of his compatriots; this time it was the distinguished philologist Francis March, of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, who played an active part in the work of the Dictionary over the next thirty years.

James Murray and his ‘list of wants’

Once he began to compile actual Dictionary entries, James Murray realized that more specific help was needed. Even after the efforts of all of the voluntary readers he was sure that earlier, or later, examples of a word could be found than those which had been collected so far.

Accordingly, he wrote to the journal Notes and Queries, asking its readers to seek out quotations for nearly sixty words in the range abacist to abnormous. Soon other journals were reprinting the words on these lists—generally referred to by James Murray as his ‘lists of wants’ or ‘desiderata’—and inviting their readers to join in the hunt for quotations.

Example slips

Taken from the June 1879 appeal, this slip shows an example of a quotation submission and instructions for referencing and recording the source. After being submitted to Oxford, each quotation was written out on a small (6×4 inch) index slip, with a reference included to explain the source of the quotation. These slips were filed alphabetically according to the word noted by the reader, to be used by OED lexicographers as they proceeded to compile the Dictionary.

Murray’s programme provided the vast majority of the quotations which appeared in the 1928 edition of the OED. After this publication, a lot of quotation evidence remained unused, so the OED editors decided to publish a single-volume Supplement. This supplementary volume was published in 1933, along with a reissued edition of the Dictionary.

Even after publication of the Supplement there were still about 140,000 quotation slips left over. These quotation slips were put into storage or donated to other historical dictionary projects, such as a project for a dictionary of Middle English in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

A new editor and the London Times

The 1933 Supplement remained the last word, as far as the OED was concerned, until the 1950s, when OUP decided that it was time to prepare a revised and expanded edition—not of the whole Dictionary, but of the Supplement.

Once again, one of the first actions of the new Editor, Robert Burchfield, was to issue a leaflet appealing to the public to help with the collection of evidence; and once again lists of ‘desiderata’ began to appear, first as supplements to the Periodical and then in the pages of Notes and Queries.

Versions of these lists also began to appear elsewhere: the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, for example, asked its readers to look out for various aeronautical terms, and for several years the London Times adopted a policy of featuring selected words from the lists from time to time, which in some cases generated a lively correspondence, and often some useful antedatings.

For example, in the summer of 1960, a report that no examples of the expression mud in your eye had so far been found earlier than 1940 was followed a few days later by a letter providing an example from 1927.This is still the earliest known example of mud in your eye.

The second edition continues the appeals

In 1986, the next stage in the development of the OED was under way: the creation of the second edition of the Dictionary, in which the text of the first edition was to be combined with that of the Supplement, together with several thousand additional new entries.

The editing of this new batch of new entries was entrusted to John Simpson, who once again published ‘Appeals Lists’ asking for help with particular words, initially in the New OED Newsletter and then further afield.

balderdash and piffle

In 2005 the OED linked up with the BBC for another kind of appeal to the public. The Wordhunt asked BBC television viewers — and users of various websites — for help in finding earlier examples of a selection of 50 words and phrases; and the results were presented the following year in the television seriesBalderdash & Piffle.

The project generated considerable public interest, and some significant antedatings were found, several of them from distinctly unconventional sources, which are now quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oED appeals today

Your Dictionary needs you!

At present the Dictionary is undergoing its first thorough revision and update. Around 70 editors, mostly in Oxford and New York, review each word in turn, examining its meaning and history, noting where meanings have changed — or where old definitions no longer suffice — and recraft the entries in the light of the most up-to-date information. The result is the current online edition of the Dictionary (in progress).

OED editor Katherine Connor Martin said, “The OED’s record of the history of English has relied on input from the public since before crowdsourcing was even a word. James Murray launched an Appeal to the public as far back as 1879, and the OED Appeals continues this long tradition of asking the public for help in our quest to record the origins of our vast, fantastic, ever-changing lexicon. After all, when it comes to the words we read, write, speak, and hear each day, every one of us is an expert.”

We are calling on language lovers everywhere to help us trace the history of words whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Could you hold the key to unlocking some of these language conundrums?

Puzzles include:
Was a ‘disco’ a dress before it was a nightclub?
When did the phrase ‘blue-arsed fly’ first appear?

If you can help, visit: www.oed.com/appeals.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog. 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world. As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from those of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You’ll still find these in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language—traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to films scripts and cookery books. The OED started life more than 150 years ago. Today, the dictionary is in the process of its first major revision. Updates revise and extend the OED at regular intervals, each time subtly adjusting our image of the English language.

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