Today in 1884, the first part (or “fascicle“) of the Oxford English Dictionary was published, a 352-page volume, defining words from A to Ant. The full title of the dictionary when it was first released was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society.
James A. H. Murray, the editor of the dictionary from 1879 to 1915, stated in his introduction: “That vast aggregate of words and phrases which constitutes the vocabulary of English-speaking men presents, to the mind that endeavours to grasp it as a definite whole, the aspect of one of those nebulous masses familiar to the astronomer, in which a clear and unmistakeable nucleus shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness.”
The 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica ascribes to Samuel Johnson the “credit of showing how useful, when properly chosen, [quotations] may be, not only in corroborating the lexicographer’s statements, but also in revealing special shades of meaning or variations of use which his definitions cannot well express.”
It also notes that “the chief difficulty in the way of this use of quotations – after the difficulty of collection – is that of finding space for them in a dictionary of reasonable size.”
In April 1928, the last volume was published – instead of 6,400 pages in four volumes as originally planned, the dictionary contained over 400,000 words and phrases in ten volumes. The Second Edition (OED2), published in 1989, contained over 60,000,000 words in 22,000 pages, bound in twenty volumes.
On March 14, 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online) became available to subscribers. The online database contains the entire OED2 and is updated quarterly with revisions. The planned Third Edition (OED3), is intended as a nearly complete overhaul of the work. Each word is being examined and revised to improve the accuracy of the definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and historical quotations—a task requiring the efforts of a staff consisting of more than 300 scholars, researchers, readers, and consultants, and projected to cost about $55 million. The result is expected to double the overall length of the text. The pace of inclusion of new words has been increased to the rate of about 4,000 a year. As of 2007, the third edition was expected to have 480,000 words and to be completed in 2037.