Oxford English Dictionary. License By CC. Wikimedia

The Oxford English Dictionary: A Twenty Volume Encyclopedic Dictionary Set You Can’t Carry To Class

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is oftentimes referred to as the foremost definite guide to vocabulary in the English language. Why is this so, one might ask, as there are so many other dictionaries? Published by Oxford University Press in England, this dictionary sets itself apart with its incredibly fulsome word etymology and word history. Word etymology refers to the study of the history of words, including their linguistic origin. As we all learned early on, many English words were, in fact, borrowed from other languages in dim antiquity.

There have been only two complete sets of the Oxford English Dictionary, the fist work spanning 1884-1928, released in a twelve volume form, and the second being published far more recently, back in 1989, requiring twenty hardcover bound reference books. Weighing in at one hundred and thirty-five lean pounds, the complete Second Edition OED book set would qualify as a lightweight boxer, were it a man. Light for a person, anything but for a dictionary! Try carrying that back and forth to your English 101 class.

Oxford English Dictionary. License By CC. Wikimedia

Oxford English Dictionary. License By CC. Wikimedia

These OED hardcover sets are usually found only in the libraries of larger academic institutions; most people are satisfied to own either the hardcover or soft-cover concise version that is but one short book. The third edition is currently in the works, and promises to include many new terms that English has absorbed from other languages, as well as words we’ve made up since 1989, with our ever-changing technological culture.

The OED permits a scholar to gain an understanding of not only how words are used today, but how their usage has shifted and morphed over the decades and centuries. Short quotations are included demonstrating the first usage of each new definition appearing in print, an invaluable resource for researching language. The second edition includes a whopping 59 million words, requiring 540 megabytes to store them all. As impressive as this sounds, it’s not the world’s largest dictionary! That honor would go to the Grimm Brothers Deutsches Wörterbuch (DWB), the complete dictionary of the German language, started in 1838 and competed in 1854.

The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary actually have nothing to do with Oxford University, but rather its inception began with London intellectuals, members of the Philological Society, established in 1842, and dedicated to the study of language. Its goals were to identify the various ways in which then-current English dictionaries failed, including lacking full coverage of then-obsolete words, poor coverage of related word-families, errors in dating the first appearance of many words, and the glaring omission of obsolete senses of words still in usage.

Additionally, the Philological Society established that the Oxford English Dictionary should address the issue of synonym confusion, a lack of quotations illustrating usage derived from printed works, and the positively wasteful practice of redundancy in entries. This massive project was actually completed with the assistance of innumerable volunteer readers, poring over literature assigned to each, noting usage of words that seemed different than was common in the nineteenth century.

Imagine how much more easily this could have been done using computers? Unfortunately, none were yet available for the completion of this task; while mechanical calculators predated this gargantuan project, such devices were extremely limited and were confined to strictly mathematical operations, and basic ones, at that. Were it not for sheer enthusiasm and academic acumen, such an undertaking would have been beyond possibility. Thankfully, there was no shortage of amateur and professional linguists, word-smiths, and avid readers and language historians willing to donate their valuable time. It’s incredible that such a project was even carried to its end, considering its ridiculous scope and sheer amount of time needed for completion.

As the cultural changes that swept Europe, and the world, in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century had innumerable effects on word usage, the original edition quickly became obsolete. Hence the need for supplements, as well as a second edition, and now a third (still in the works). In fact, the third edition is not being planned as a printed encyclopedic dictionary set, but rather as a digital-only resource. The trees would stand happily swaying in the wind, were such knowledge conveyed to them, to be sure. In fact, the 1989 Second Publication was outdated by the time it was published, as techno-culture roared forward. Hence, the need for a third edition was clearly established.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary,  the Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, as well as the New Oxford Dictionary of English, were all abridged versions of the earlier works, meant to serve a far wider population, than strictly the stereotypical greying erudite scholar who perennially haunted the stacks of university libraries. As a result, the incredible work of the Philological Society became available to a far wider audience, from middle and high school students, to collegiate attendees of all levels. These other editions, focusing on brevity (and totable character) were available since the earlier decades of the twentieth century, and have been updated with each passing decade.

Tim Bray, one of the innovators of XML (Extensible Markup Language), has revealed that the OED had no small role in inspiring the creation of this ubiquitous markup language, used all around the world, in so many ways today by computer programmers. Even so, there have been various (mostly legitimate) complaints leveled against the OED, through the course of its lifetime. Prudishness is one such charge. None of the editions include language that was deemed offensive, such as curse words. Other, lesser dictionaries do, in fact, include such four letter words and scatological terms.

Additionally, it’s been accused of being decidedly Anglophilic, lacking words that are popular and in wide usage around the globe, commonly employed in other “World Englishes”, but not “proper” British English. These complains notwithstanding, the Oxford English Dictionary is a one-of-a-kind resource, a painstakingly produced and edited work that all word-smiths and scholars of the English language, and our written history, should come to know and love.

Archie Frank

Born inquisitive. Loves seafood, chess, and curling up with Shakespeare (or John Donne). Editor-at large. Despises mosquitoes. And bell peppers. Eclectic reader. Prolific worrier.


  • Avatar Bored says:


  • Avatar blog3004.xyz says:

    This is a topic that’s close to my heart…

    I love learning about word origins, and English Lit was my college minor!

    Best wishes! Where are your contact details though?

  • Seyn Laproyen Seyn Laproyen says:

    Thank you for all the info here. I have an older version of the OED2 on a single CD for Windows (9/2009 edition). I have been using it to create a database of collocations and word associations, as well as a general, _editable_ ‘index’ for visual dictionaries, illustrated books, etc.
    I will gladly offer those and many other language reference works to those who are learning a 2nd, 3rd, … language. Those who are interested should feel free to write to me.

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