Work on the project had begun in 1857, when members of the Philological Society agreed that existing dictionaries of the English language were far from adequate. Three members of that learned society were the great drivers of the idea in its early days: Herbert Coleridge; Frederick Furnivall; and Richard Trench. In June 1857, they formed an “Unregistered Words Committee” to search for unlisted and undefined words lacking in current dictionaries.
After Richard Trench’s appointment as Dean of Westminster and the death of Herbert Coleridge, Furnivall became editor. Furnivall believed that since many printed texts from earlier centuries were not readily available, it would be impossible for volunteers to locate the quotations that the dictionary needed. As a result, Furnivall founded the Early English Text Society in 1864 and the Chaucer Society in 1868 to publish old manuscripts. Furnivall’s preparatory efforts, which lasted 21 years, provided numerous texts for the use and enjoyment of the general public, but did not actually involve compiling a dictionary.
In the 1870s, Furnivall approached James Murray, who accepted the post of editor.
Murray started the project, working in a corrugated iron outbuilding, the “Scriptorium”, which was lined with wooden planks, book shelves, and 1,029 pigeon-holes for the quotation slips.
Through newspapers Murray appealed for readers who would report “as many quotations as you can for ordinary words” and for words that were “rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way”. 1,000 quotation slips arrived daily to the Scriptorium, and by 1882, there were 3,500,000.
In 1878, Oxford University Press agreed with Murray to proceed with publishing the massive project; the agreement was formalized the following year. The dictionary project finally had a publisher 20 years after the idea was conceived. It would be another 50 years before the entire dictionary was complete.
In spite of this involvement, the work was not to be known as The Oxford English Dictionary until 1895, its working title until then having been the wordier ‘A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Material Collected by The Philological Society’.
The first dictionary collection was published on 1 February 1884—twenty-three years after Coleridge’s sample pages. the 352-page volume, words from A to Ant, was finally on sale for 12s.6d
The first fully bound and complete edition of the work finally appeared in 1928, long after the three men whose original vision it was had died.
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