Winchester has written a history of the people who envisioned the making of the first complete English dictionary. In 1860 two main dictionaries existed, Samuel Johnson's and Noah Webster's. The British Philological Committee wanted a new dictionary that not only defined a word, supplied the best pronunciation but gave its history. It must be free of political bias, give all variant spellings and definitions and include obsolete words. Seventy years would pass before the project was completed. Seventy years during which time politics, penury and pomposity threatened to sink the project.
Thousands of volunteers in England, America – anywhere in the English speaking world – were recruited to read books dating from 1250 AD. The readers' task was to list words with the pertinent quotations that illustrated their meaning. Each reader submitted each word on a separate slip of paper. These slips were collected, checked and collated in special pigeonholes constructed to mange them. The editor then painstakingly reviewed each submission and determined the final meaning.
This report prepared by Carmen Flak
"The Meaning of Everything" is a history of the Oxford English Dictionary. The idea was born in 1857 out of discussions of three members of the Philological Society, a group formed to share among themselves scholarship in the field of language, about the need for a new more comprehensive English Dictionary, since it was felt that those available at the time were simply inadequate. The three men, two of whom were to become the early editors of the new volume, Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet and first editor, Frederick Furnival, who took over the editorship after Coleridge's untimely death, and Richard Trench, wanted a book that would be a complete record of every word in the language with its every meaning.
Their method was to employ volunteer readers who would read through a variety of texts, making note of interesting words, the sentences in which they appeared, and the date of those sentences. These would be written on half sheets of paper and sent to the editor who could than compare the various usages and arrive at a definition, discover changes in meaning , and trace the history of the word and its meanings as it was actually used in the language. This was to be a dictionary, then based on historical principles–what did a word mean and when did it mean it.
None of three, nor for that matter most of those who came after them, envisioned the enormity of the task, neither the length it would eventually run to, nor the time it would take to bring it to fruition, It was not until 1928, long after they had all passed on, as had two of their successors, that the completed 12 volume result of their discussions was finally finished, and even then it was not complete. Supplements were to come and indeed more supplements are to come–language grows and the dictionary must grow along with it. What these men began was a task without end.
This report prepared by Jack Goodstein