It’s odd to think of a time when words did not have standardized meanings, when such things as dictionaries did not exist.
In fact, of course, there was such a time. In his book The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), Simon Winchester reminds us that Shakespeare had no way to check spelling of words or variances of meaning since standardization did not exist. He could not “look something up.” The concept did not even exist.
While a few men in the early centuries tried to build what would be called early dictionaries (including Samuel Johnson in 1755), these trials would be eclipsed by the proposal in 1857 for a “big dictionary” that was to be an “inventory of the language.” This proposed dictionary would be “the history of the life span of each and every word” that appeared in the English language (104). This dictionary would chart the life of each word, recording its first mention in literature, then subsequent usages, “for every word, a passage quoted from literature that showed where each word was used first” (105). It would then show how the meanings of the word changed across the years — in some cases, across the centuries.
After some fits and starts and times when the very idea of this task seemed impossible (no computers!), Professor James A. H. Murray of the London Public School Mill Hill and member of the London Philological Society was chosen to take on the task of editor and find a way to complete the work. After getting Oxford Publishers on board, the project continued in earnest in 1879.
Murray’s first step was to recruit an army of English-speaking volunteers who would read books and gather words and quotations. The call for volunteers went out in flyers across Great Britain, the British colonies, and America. As people volunteered, Murray mailed them the following, which amounts to a style sheet of guidelines for these researchers:
The quotations, said the editor’s first page, were to be written on half sheets of writing paper. The target word — the “catchword,” as Murray liked to call it — was to be written at the top left. The crucial date of the quotation should be written just below it, then the name of the author and title of the cited book, the page number, and finally, the full text of the sentence being quoted. …
Murray’s rules were clear and unambiguous: Every word was a possible catchword. Volunteers should try to find a quotation for each and every word in a book. They should perhaps concentrate their efforts on words that struck them as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar, or used in a peculiar way, but they should also look assiduously for ordinary words as well, providing that the sentence that included it said something about the use or meaning of the word. (134-35)
The volunteers began working — sending their slips of paper by the thousands every day. A first editor read to see if the slip was legible and had all the required elements; a second editor sorted the slips into alphabetical order. A third editor then divided the words into parts of speech (the same word being used as a noun, verb, adjective, etc.). A fourth editor began to “subdivide the meanings into the various shades it had enjoyed over its life [and] . . . make a first stab at writing that most crucial feature of most dictionaries — the definition” (151). The plan was to have “at least one sentence from the literature of each century in which the word was used” (152). Murray did the final edits of the definition, chose the best quotations, and determined the word’s pronunciation.
These new dictionaries were published alphabetically in sets. Portions of A – B appeared in 1885; another portion of B in 1887; the book comprising the letter C appeared in 1897 and was dedicated to Queen Victoria in her jubilee year.
The Oxford English Dictionary was officially completed in 1928, taking 70 years, resulting in 12 volumes with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Sadly, Murray died in 1915 and did not live to see the completion of the work to which he gave so much of his life — practically living in the Scriptorium at Oxford University, placing slips of paper into over a thousand pigeonholes on banks of shelves specially built to sort words. A supplement was published in 1933, and four supplements came out between 1972 and 1986. In 1989, the computer aided in creating a second edition of the OED.
Current principal editor of new words, David Martin, explains that 600 new words have been added in the latest update — new words and phrases such as crowd-surfer, Debbie Downer, facepalm, hashtag (as a verb), and TGIF.
And just who was the madman in the title of Winchester’s book? He was one of the most prolific of Murray’s word-seeking volunteers. You’ll want to read the book for all of those details!
In the meantime, grab the nearest dictionary — you probably don’t own an OED, but you probably have a dictionary of some sort. Revel in the plethora of information therein about every single word.
And be thankful for this great editor James Murray and the thousands of little slips of paper that got the whole thing started.
UPDATE March 27, 2019, see this official trailer for the film version of this book.