Peter Gilliver recommends the best books on

The Oxford English Dictionary

It’s a dictionary that seeks to document any word that exists—or ever existed—in the English language and track its evolution over time. Lexicographer Peter Gilliver chooses books to help understand the enormous undertaking that is the Oxford English Dictionary.

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    Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary
    by K. M. Elisabeth Murray

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    The Collected Papers of Henry Bradley
    by Robert Bridges

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    The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary
    by Simon Winchester

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    The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860
    by Hans Aarsleff

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    The Scholar's Daughter
    by Beatrice Harraden

Peter Gilliver

Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987 and is one of its most experienced lexicographers. He has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years.

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Peter Gilliver

Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987 and is one of its most experienced lexicographers. He has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years.

Save for later

Let’s start by you telling me what the Oxford English Dictionary is. It’s not a dictionary you would turn to if you quickly needed to look up a word you’ve forgotten the meaning of, is it?

No, it’s a dictionary that aims to tell the whole history of the English language by telling the story of each word. It’s called a dictionary ‘on historical principles.’ The fundamental historical principle is that a word should be able to tell its own story by real examples of that word, showing how it has been used. You want to know not just what a word means now, but what it has meant at all stages in its history. You need to collect evidence for what those different meanings might be, examples of the word in use over the history of the language, which is a great idea that people started to have in the 19th century.

In the 1850s, the idea of doing it for English began with the Philological Society of London. The problem is, this is the pre-computer age; you can’t just look through databases to find the earliest example of the word ‘peanut.’ You have to have lots and lots of people reading lots and lots of books from the whole history of English, and not just books, but newspapers, manuscripts, anything that is a dateable piece of evidence.

The appeal went out: ‘Who wants to read for the dictionary?’ So the quotations on which the Oxford English Dictionary is based began to come in, and continued to come in for about 20 years. The first editor of the dictionary died very soon after taking up the task. Somebody else took over, who was very energetic, but very unfocused. His name was Frederick Furnivall, and then eventually James Murray, the well-known first editor of the dictionary, took over in the 1870s. The first edition of the dictionary was completed in 1933 in 13 volumes. We’ve been – I say ‘we’ because I’ve been working on the dictionary since the 1980s…

What scale is it on now?

Well, the second edition, which came out in 1989, was not a revised edition, it was the text to the first edition plus a whole lot of supplementary material for new words and new meanings that had been researched in just the same way over the mid-20th century. That became 20 volumes.

Now we are preparing the third edition. To ask the question, ‘How many volumes is it?’ is immaterial because at the moment, the interim text of the dictionary, the text we’ve revised so far, is only available online. When we eventually finish the whole process, revising everything from A to Z, if there was a market for the printed version of the dictionary, then I’m sure OUP would print it. But, realistically, I think people now find works of reference of that size far more useful in electronic form. So, at the moment, OED3 is electronic.

How many words are in there?

Is it half a million? When you’re only working on one word, you don’t really know how big the rest of it is.

So what’s the oldest word in there?

The oldest words in the language are the ones that go back to Old English — so whatever the earliest records of English are, maybe 5th or 6th century. You might find them inscribed on an Anglo Saxon tombstone or a sword recovered from a bog. I don’t really know. I’m not a historian of English.

Since so many English words are foreign in origin, do you have to be good at lots of languages to be a good lexicographer?

I take pride in telling people that my highest qualification in any language is ‘O’ level. I read maths at Cambridge. The reason I’m a lexicographer, I’m sure, is because both my parents were language teachers, and we argued about language all the time. That’s just what we did. Family meal times would degenerate into discussions of the semicolon. So I think what you need to be a good lexicographer is sensitivity to nuance in language—really, really fine distinctions—and the ability to write about them clearly. I’m not sure you can train that into somebody.

Having said that, on the staff, we do need people who are knowledgeable, very well qualified in Old English, in medieval French, in the languages from which English has borrowed its words. But once a word comes into English, for me, that’s when the fun starts, because it can change in meaning over time. That’s simply a question of looking at how the word has been used in all of these examples that we’re talking about, all the quotations, and seeing how it’s changed over time. That’s not really about being good at French or, for that matter, having a professional qualification in linguistics. It’s about having a feel for the language.

And words change massively over time?

Some words don’t change very much. I imagine the word ‘potato’ is still…a potato is a potato is a potato. But a word like ‘toilet’ originally meant a piece of cloth that you put on a dressing table. Then it became the name for the dressing table itself. Then it became a name for what you do at that dressing table. In an old novel, you might read about a lady who was ‘at her toilet,’ and it just means she’s putting on her face or making herself look pretty. Then it became a word for the room where those things are kept, and then—it’s a process of euphemism—it became a word for a room where you do other things besides making up your face.

Let’s talk about some of these books you’ve chosen. So the first one is by Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words (1977). She is writing about James Murray, whom you’ve already mentioned as the first well-known editor of the dictionary.

She was one of his granddaughters, and Caught in the Web of Words is a biography of James Murray. But because his life was so bound up with the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s both a biography of James Murray and the story of the OED in so far as he was involved with it. It’s been called one of the best biographies of the 20th century, and I think that’s fair enough. It’s brilliantly done.

Is that particularly for people with an interest in words or in general?

He was just a most amazing man, really. When I started doing research into the history of the dictionary, this was one of the great texts that I knew I could draw on. It portrays him as this most prodigious man with extraordinary abilities. He never went to university, but he spoke a large number of languages. He was capable of incredible hard work.

I slightly thought when I started work on the history, ‘Am I going to find that he’s not as heroic as his granddaughter—who’s going to be loyal to him—has cracked him up to be?’ And I’ve come to the conclusion that he really is. He doesn’t have feet of clay, he is amazing. Just the passionate sense of vocation, the sense that God had placed him on this earth to do this job, and that all of the skills that he had, had been developed for this specific job. He would work late into the night, late into his 70s. You come across evidence that he’s actually at work at 11 o’clock at night in the middle of winter, day after day.

So his mission was basically to chart the evolution of all the words in the English language?

That was the job of all the people who worked on the dictionary. One of the things I really try to get across in my book is just how much of a collective process it is. I mentioned all the people sending in examples of words. Literally thousands of people worked on the dictionary in that way. Working alongside the editor, there was a whole team of assistants and consultants, and James Murray was always at pains to say, ‘It’s not just my work.’

By the time James Murray was taken on board as editor, the idea of the dictionary was already well developed. He didn’t have the idea. But it rapidly became apparent that he was the best possible person for the job. His name was on the first title page, but, eventually, there was more than one editor. As he and his staff worked through the dictionary, it wasn’t getting done fast enough. So Oxford University Press appointed a second editor to work on a different part of the dictionary. That was Henry Bradley, and then he was followed by a third one and a fourth one.

So let’s talk more about Henry Bradley. So he also spoke lots of languages, and was also self-taught. These people are not coming out of Oxbridge, are they?

That’s right. I suppose it goes back to this idea that specific academic training isn’t going to be the way to make a lexicographer. So the second editor of the OED, who worked alongside James Murray for many years, is a man called Henry Bradley. He likewise didn’t go to university. One of the things I always like to mention is that he learned to read upside down. His father read to the family from the Bible on his knees, and young Henry seems to have worked out how to read, and when he was first given a book to read for himself, he held it upside down.

He came from a fairly humble background, worked in a Sheffield cutlery firm for many years and then came to London. He wrote a review of the very first part of the dictionary when the first instalment came out which was so able and insightful that people thought, ‘We ought to have him come and work for us.’

He worked on the dictionary first as an assistant, and then as an editor responsible for the letter ‘E.’ He had separate responsibility for a different part of the alphabet, and he had his own team. James Murray was always the chief editor and a big character in so many ways that Henry Bradley tends to get overshadowed, but he’s pretty impressive. He liked to say that James Murray set up the plan, and he carried on the work after Murray died.

So these are the Collected Papers of Henry Bradley (1928) that you’ve chosen. Is it letters?

It’s all sorts of things. James Murray had written books before he became the editor of the OED, he wrote an important book on Scottish dialect, for example. But once he became editor of the OED, that was what he did. He didn’t really have time for anything else. Somehow Bradley, while he was working on the OED, continued to produce scholarly articles on place names and solving problems in old texts. He wrote articles for the Dictionary of National Biography and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and several books, like a popular history of English called The Making of English. These collected papers contain some of those journal articles. But the reason I’ve chosen it is because it begins with a memoir of Henry Bradley. It tells the story of his life and it’s by the poet laureate Robert Bridges, who was a great friend.

It’s quite intriguing, the way he got the OED’s attention by writing this review, pointing out that the OED had got some things wrong. How would he have come by the knowledge to make that kind of critique?

Just by looking at it really hard. I suppose his reading enabled him to pick up little details. I mean, he wasn’t the only reviewer of the first fascicle of the dictionary to spot mistakes. It wasn’t that he found lots and lots of mistakes. It was just the way he wrote about them. He showed himself to be very perceptive.

Let’s go on to the third book. This is more of a page-turner, I think: Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words (1999).

Working on the history of the dictionary as I have been, I’ve been really conscious of just how many individuals there are who have an amazing story to tell. Like the man who only worked on the dictionary for a little while, but then went off and got captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front in the First World War. There are all sorts of stories and these people just have little footnotes in my book because my job, in The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, is to tell the story of the project. I’ve tried not to get too distracted by all these fascinating stories, though sometimes there are very long footnotes…

Are they all quite quirky characters?

No, not all of them. Some of them are amazing because they gave their entire working lives to this one project, and, for that reason, didn’t leave any other mark on the world, they’re obscure figures. The Surgeon of Crowthorne is not about one of the staff, but about one of the people who sent in quotations to the dictionary, a man called W.C. Minor.

The quotations for the dictionary were sent in by members of the public. W.C. Minor was a member of the public, but he just happened to be a murderer who was banged up in Broadmoor. He was an American who had fought in the American Civil War and was traumatised by his experiences. His family sent him over to this country to rehabilitate; it didn’t work. He remained convinced that people were out to kill him, and he shot a man in the street and was put away when Broadmoor was really quite new. The name Broadmoor has such a resonance now, but not then.

The story goes that when this useful material started coming into the dictionary from this address, ‘Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire,’ it sounded like a nice country house: perhaps it was from somebody who had a lot of leisure time, with private means. Eventually James Murray discovered that actually, no. The crime and the trial had been in the papers, it was well-known in America, and he had heard about it.

Dr Minor was clearly insane, and one part of his mind was unhinged. He was convinced that he was being spirited off to Constantinople every night. But another part of his mind was perfectly capable of reading books and writing out quotations for the dictionary in a useful, intellectual way, and he did that for many years. Because of the obsessive quality of Dr Minor’s work, the quotations he supplied were really useful, and it makes a great story. In fact, it’s currently being made into a film, with Mel Gibson as  James Murray and Sean Penn as Dr Minor. 

The Surgeon of Crowthorne was apparently not a clear enough title in the American market, so they re-titled it The Professor and the Madman for the American edition, which is more vivid, though James Murray was never a professor.

What kinds of things was he reading in prison that he was able to bring to the attention of the editor of the OED?

He mainly read books from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. In those days, if you were well-off—and he came from a well-off family—you could have quite nice rooms in Broadmoor. I seem to remember he actually had other inmates waiting on him. He played his flute and he had fine books which he would read for the dictionary. Quite often they were books about travel to far away places. He didn’t read them in quite the same way as other people read books for the dictionary. He would make indexes to each book in tiny, tiny writing — almost exhaustive word-by-word indexes which you would have to be obsessive to do. Nowadays, you just expect to be able to search for any word in an e-book. He was doing that on paper.

When would you know that a word needed a quotation sent to the editors of the OED?

An ordinary volunteer reader would just have to make the best guess they could. So if you’re reading a book and you come across a word that you think, ‘Gosh that’s quite unusual for this period’ or ‘It sounds like an early use of the word,’ then you’d send it in. With Dr Minor, if the editors told him, ‘We’re working on this word here and we need examples before this date,’ then he could look it up in his little indexes.

So the OED was sending that kind of request to all sorts of people or just to him?

He got special attention because his work was so useful. The editors did issue lists of: ‘These are the words that we are working on, and the earliest example we have so far is 1682. Can anyone do better than that?’ They were called lists of ‘desiderata,’ and they went out to people closely involved with the dictionary.

So what time period are we talking about?

Dr Minor fought in the American Civil War in the 1860s. He went to Broadmoor in the early 1870s and began to work on the OED in the 1880s and carried on into the 1900s. So The Surgeon of Crowthone is a really good story focusing on just one, well two, individuals—Dr Minor and James Murray—but there must be so many other books that you could write about some of the individuals who contributed to the OED.

Let’s go on to book number four, The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860 (1967) by Hans Aarsleff. How does this fit into your book choices?

It helps to understand where this idea about, ‘What kind of dictionary do we need — or is still needed?’ came from. This is a really good introduction to the intellectual climate, what people thought about language, and how they thought about it academically. I confess that the earlier part of the book is very dense and about the philosophy of language. But it traces the development of particular ideas about language and in the last couple of chapters it talks about the foundation of the London Philological Society, which was the society that set the dictionary going, and some of the people involved in that society.

You asked me to select five books. If I could have chosen chapters, there is a more recent book, the Oxford Handbook of Lexicography, which has a chapter in it by John Considine on the development of the idea of the historical dictionary. I think that would be a better introduction to where the OED came from. It is straight to the point because Aarsleff’s book is about the history of the study of language generally, whereas John Considine’s chapter talks about the development of the historical principle, the idea that the way to write a dictionary entry is to work out all of the different meanings that a word has had and illustrate them using examples following the actual evidence of a word from its birth to its death.

The development of that principle started in Germany, with German scholars. First of all, a German scholar working on a dictionary of Greek wanted to apply the principle to his Greek dictionary. Then the same historical principle was applied by the Brothers Grimm who, as well as collecting fairy tales, also started the German equivalent to the OED. German was the first of the European languages to be treated in this way.

The Deutsches Wörterbuch was started by the Brothers Grimm, but it took an awful lot longer than the OED to finish. But it was from these ideas that the OED developed — and also an important Dictionary of Scots  by John Jamieson, which used quotations in much the same way as the OED does. All of these together fed into the idea of the OED, and I would say John Considine’s chapter tells that story very well. And there’s an awful lot else in the Oxford Handbook of Lexicography which is worth reading as well.

So where do you think the impulse came from to look at language in this way?

This is something that Hans Aarsleff talks about. It’s partly the idea of the language as the embodiment of the ‘spirit of a nation.’ People became interested in the idea of studying where this idea of ‘German-ness’ comes from and I think people had the same idea about English. It was both an interest in the idea and also patriotism. You could make it a great national project and certainly the OED, or the New English Dictionary, as it was originally called, was promoted by its supporters as a great, national, patriotic work.

But then isn’t it weird that when you start looking at the words so many of them come from other languages?

Ah, but then they become English. It’s a real mongrel language. English has drawn on so many strands of so many different languages.

Your last book is The Scholar’s Daughter (1906).

This is my rogue choice, just a bit of fun really. Beatrice Harraden was a novelist and a suffragette. She was a good friend of Frederick Furnivall, who was the second editor of the dictionary before James Murray. There is a biography of Frederick Furnivall which tells you what an amazing character he was, and Beatrice Harraden was a friend of his who called him ‘Ferney.’ Because he was a great supporter of the dictionary—in fact, the dictionary wouldn’t have happened without him—he was keen to show her all about the dictionary, and she must have come to visit James Murray in the workshop where he and his assistants worked on the dictionary. Murray called it the ‘Scriptorium.’ A scriptorium was originally a place where monks used to write illuminated manuscripts, but it became the place where the OED was written, the part of it that James Murray was responsible for.

Beatrice Harraden was evidently looking for material for her next novel, and she wrote The Scholar’s Daughter. I recently reread it and reminded myself how wonderfully trashy it is. It’s a romance. The central characters are: Professor Grant, for which read, James Murray. I mean, in the novel, he is not Scottish. He’s not got a long beard like James Murray has, but I think we can certainly see the dictionary that the people in the book are compiling as the OED, in all but name. So it is Professor Grant and his bookworms, that’s the three assistants who work alongside him, one of whom is called Mr. Gulliver. I have a fellow feeling for him. Then there is an actress called Charlotta Selbourne.

It turns out that Professor Grant’s wife left him and a young baby to go off with another man, and obviously, they became estranged, and the daughter was brought up believing her mother to be dead. But actually that woman was the actress Charlotta Selbourne who comes back to Professor Grant’s study and the novel concludes with a reconciliation scene. Professor Grant says—I think the last words are something like—“’Lotta,’ he murmured, ‘Lotta.’”

So it’s just Mills and Boon really and it’s only got the most tenuous connection with the OED. But there are a couple of scenes in the book which are an evocation of the room where all the lexicography was being done, and it so clearly must have been based on a visit or two by Beatrice Harraden.

So nowadays—we’re sitting here where the dictionary is being put together—everybody is behind their computer screen. What were they doing in those days?

Working with slips of paper. The front cover of Caught in the Web of Words is probably the most famous picture of James Murray and the OED. It’s him working in the Scriptorium, and the walls of the Scriptorium are lined with pigeonholes, full of slips of paper: millions and millions of slips of paper. When I started working on the dictionary in 1987, compiling an entry was the same process.

So there’ll be a slot for ‘apple’ and then…

for application and then apply.

But how many slips of paper will ‘apple’ have?

There will probably be hundreds of slips of paper about all the different uses of ‘apple’ —  like ‘the apple of one’s eye,’ and so on. So, in order to create a dictionary entry, you look through all of the slips (this is in the pre-computer age), you look through all of the evidence that you’ve got for the word, group the quotations into different senses, write a definition for each one, arrange them in chronological order to show the historical development, and then, of course, you have to investigate where the word came from. I mean, ‘apple’ is, I think, one of the oldest words in the language. It goes back to the earliest strata of Old English. But, in other cases, you might find that it’s a word that’s been borrowed into English from Hawaiian in the 20th century or French in the 15th. And you write all of this: the definition, the etymology, and the quotations that are already written on slips, and those bundles of slips will go off to be printed.

Now, it’s not so very different. We still have slips. There are slips on every desk out there, but also, of course, we can look at many, many more examples of how a word is used.

So has the art of doing this accelerated? Has it become so much easier that you can cover a lot more ground?

It’s become easier and harder. It’s become easier because let’s suppose you have a word that seems to have started out as an American word and it looks like the sort of word that might have started out in newspapers. Then you can look through these huge newspaper databases and just type in the word and see when the first occurrence is. The only alternative in the past would have been to send a library worker to go and read back issues of some newspaper, trying to find earlier examples of the word. So the access to the data is easier.

But the volume of information is very hard to manage. I always draw the analogy of sensitive hearing. It is as though our hearing — the extent to which we can hear all of the detail of the language — has become much more sensitive, and it is deafening.

But the process of looking at the examples and saying, ‘Well, in these earlier examples, the word seems to be used slightly differently from the later examples, so there’s perhaps two different meanings here. That’s the same process; you need the same skills.

Do you think more words are coming in because it’s a bigger world population who are using English?

Yes, right from the beginning, the OED was trying to capture not just the history of English in Britain, but the history of English all over the world. But so many more people speak English now, and the more people speak a language, the more likely new words are to come in.

And you are trying to cover all those, as well? Do you have people in India?

We are trying to keep up. We have people reading and collecting evidence for all varieties of English. There are now historical dictionaries that concentrate on particular varieties of English, so there’s a historical dictionary of Australian English and a historical dictionary of South African English, and so on. You can go into more detail by going and looking at (say) the dictionary of South African English. But we are trying to cover it all.

How many people then have you got doing this?

It’s about 70. That’s really just the people working in this office, and then we have an office in New York, and we have people doing research in libraries: in the Library of Congress, and around the world, and then we also use consultants in specialist subjects. We might make the first attempt at writing a definition in a particular subject area, but then we might ask a specialist to see if we’ve got it exactly right.

So do you find yourself staying up until 11 o’clock at night working?

No. It’s a lovely job and after 29 years I still can’t think of a job that I would rather do. It gives me great pleasure. But it is nice to have a life. James Murray had a life as well, he had 11 children. He probably also had the odd servant and a wife who did a lot of the work.

But all of his children, as soon as they were old enough to read, earned their pocket money by sorting the slips into alphabetical order. It was a family industry. And it gets people like that. I do find if I’m at a party and somebody says, ‘What do you do?’ and I say I work for the Oxford English Dictionary, people are always interested because people are always interested in words. They’ve always got some bee in their bonnet about a particular word, or they’ve just noticed a new word that’s come into to their language. It is a fascinating job, but I don’t want to let it take over.

So going back to my first question, if you are uncertain about the meaning of a word, then there are shorter dictionaries you can go to.

Yes, the kind of dictionary you’re talking about is a dictionary of current English, of the words that are in use now. The OED is a dictionary of all the words that have even been in use, even if they’ve died out. If a word stopped being used in the 18th century, then we’ll mark it as obsolete, but it is still there. So if you want to look up the word ‘toilet’, then to be told that in the 15th century, it meant ‘a piece of cloth’ — that’s not really what you need to know.

Interview by Sophie Roell

September 22, 2016

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