5 Facts About the Oxford English Dictionary

On this day in 1884, the Oxford English Dictionary, considered the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary of the English language, was published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the meaning, pronunciation and history of over half a million word. Here are 5 surprising facts about the Oxford English Dictionary...

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Volunteers Were Used to Compile the Oxford English Dictionary It was the members of the Philological Society in London who first thought it was a good idea to publish a new and complete English dictionary back in 1857. Because it was such an enormous task, members of the public who were avid readers were asked to help with the project by sending along words and sentences that could provide insight into the words' definitions. When the first OED was published, the editors had been assisted by 2,000 volunteers.

It Took Decades to Finish the First Oxford English Dictionary Although the Philological Society believed the dictionary could be completed in only 10 years, it took 70 years to finish it. By the time the first 27 years had passed, the editors had only reached the word "ant." Realizing they had seriously miscalculated the level of effort required, they started publishing unbound editions of the work-in-progress in 1884. The first volume that was completed wasn’t published until 1928, which was more than 70 years in the future from when they had first considered the idea.

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Famous Author J.R.R. Tolkien Contributed to the OED J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings,” was a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. He made his contributions by studying the origin of German words starting with W, such as the word "wampum." Tolkien was quoted as saying that he learned more during the many years he worked as a contributor to the OED than during any other two-year period in his life.

The OED’s Longest Entry Is for the Word "Set" The three-letter word "set" is the most complex in the OED. It contains 430 different meanings and uses of the word as of the 1989 edition. The definition of this short word is an astounding 60,000 words long. Other words that have almost endless variations in which they are used include "go" (368), "take" (343) and "run" (396).

One Version of the Oxford English Dictionary Is Extremely Tiny A magnifying glass came with one edition of the OED published in 1971 because the print was so tiny. One problem with the full OED was that the set of books was enormous and took up an entire bookshelf. As a result, Oxford University Press published a miniature version that was compressed so that nine pages would fit onto one. Despite the fact that users needed a magnifying glass to read the entries, it became a bestseller.