Apr 192015


On this date in 1928 the last fascicle (printed segment) of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was published, completing the first edition of the work started 70 years earlier. The dictionary began as a Philological Society project of a small group of intellectuals in London (and unconnected to Oxford University): Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, who were dissatisfied with the then-current English dictionaries. The Society expressed interest in compiling a new dictionary as early as 1844, but it was not until June 1857 that they began, by forming an “Unregistered Words Committee” to search for words that were unlisted or poorly-defined in current dictionaries. In November, Trench’s report was not a list of unregistered words; instead, it was the study On Some Deficiencies in English Dictionaries, which identified seven distinct shortcomings in contemporary dictionaries:

Incomplete coverage of obsolete words

Inconsistent coverage of families of related words

Incorrect dates for earliest use of words

History of obsolete senses of words often omitted

Inadequate distinction among synonyms

Insufficient use of good illustrative quotations

Space wasted on inappropriate or redundant content.

The Society ultimately realized that the number of unlisted words would be far more than the number of words in the English dictionaries of the 19th century, and shifted their idea from covering only words that were not already in English dictionaries to a larger project. Trench suggested that a new, truly comprehensive dictionary was needed. On 7 January 1858, the Society formally adopted the idea of a comprehensive new dictionary. Volunteer readers would be assigned particular books, copying passages illustrating word usage on to quotation slips. Later the same year, the Society agreed to the project in principle, with the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (NED).

Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886) played the key role in the project’s first months, but his Church of England appointment as Dean of Westminster meant that he could not give the dictionary project the time it required; he withdrew, and Herbert Coleridge became the first editor. On 12 May 1860, Coleridge’s dictionary plan was published, and research started. His house was the first editorial office. He arrayed 100,000 quotation slips in a 54-pigeon-hole grid. In April 1861, the group published the first sample pages; later that month, Coleridge died of tuberculosis, aged 30. Furnivall then became editor; he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, yet temperamentally ill-suited for the work. Many volunteer readers eventually lost interest in the project as Furnivall failed to keep them motivated. Furthermore, many of the slips had been misplaced.


Furnivall believed that since many printed texts from earlier centuries were not readily available, it would be impossible for volunteers to efficiently 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 as well as crucial sources for lexicographers, but did not actually involve compiling a dictionary. Furnivall recruited over 800 volunteers to read these texts and record quotations. While enthusiastic, the volunteers were not well trained and often made inconsistent and arbitrary selections. Ultimately, Furnivall would hand over two tons of quotation slips and other materials to his successor.

In the 1870s, Furnivall unsuccessfully attempted to recruit both Henry Sweet and Henry Nicol to succeed him. He then approached James Murray, who accepted the post of editor. In the late 1870s, Furnivall and Murray met with several publishers about publishing the dictionary. In 1878, Oxford University Press (OUP) agreed with Murray to proceed with 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.

Late in his editorship Murray learned that one prolific reader, W. C. Minor, was a criminal lunatic. Minor, a Yale University-trained surgeon and military officer in the American Civil War, was confined to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after killing a man in London. Minor invented his own quotation-tracking system, allowing him to submit slips on specific words in response to editors’ requests. The story of Murray and Minor later served as the central focus of The Surgeon of Crowthorne (U.S. title: The Professor and the Madman), a popular book about the creation of the OED.


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. He tracked and re-gathered Furnivall’s collection of quotation slips, which were found to concentrate on rare, interesting words rather than common usages: for instance, there were ten times as many quotations for “abusion” as for “abuse.” Through newspapers distributed to bookshops and libraries, he 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”. Murray had U.S. philologist and liberal-arts-college professor Francis March manage the collection in North America; 1,000 quotation slips arrived daily to the Scriptorium, and by 1880, there were 2,500,000.


The first dictionary fascicle was published on 1 February 1884—twenty-three years after Coleridge’s sample pages. The full title was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society; the 352-page volume, words from A to Ant, cost 12s 6d. The total sales were a disappointing 4,000 copies.

The OUP saw it would take too long to complete the work with unrevised editorial arrangements. Accordingly, new assistants were hired and two new demands were made on Murray. The first was that he move from Mill Hill to Oxford; he did, in 1885. Murray had his Scriptorium re-erected on his new property. Murray resisted the second demand: that if he could not meet schedule, he must hire a second, senior editor to work in parallel to him, outside his supervision, on words from elsewhere in the alphabet. Murray did not want to share the work, feeling he would accelerate his work pace with experience. That turned out not to be so, and Philip Gell of the OUP forced the promotion of Murray’s assistant Henry Bradley (hired by Murray in 1884), who worked independently in the British Museum in London, beginning in 1888. In 1896, Bradley moved to Oxford University.


Gell continued harassing Murray and Bradley with his business concerns—containing costs and speeding production—to the point where the project’s collapse seemed likely. Newspapers, particularly the Saturday Review, reported the harassment, and public opinion backed the editors. Gell was fired, and the University reversed his cost policies. If the editors felt that the dictionary would have to grow larger, it would; it was an important work, and worth the time and money to finish properly. Neither Murray nor Bradley lived to see it. Murray died in 1915, having been responsible for words starting with A–D, H–K, O–P and T, nearly half the finished dictionary; Bradley died in 1923, having completed E–G, L–M, S–Sh, St and W–We. By then two additional editors had been promoted from assistant work to independent work, continuing without much trouble. William Craigie, starting in 1901, was responsible for N, Q–R, Si–Sq, U–V and Wo–Wy. Whereas previously the OUP had thought London too far from Oxford, after 1925 Craigie worked on the dictionary in Chicago, where he was a professor. The fourth editor was Charles Talbut Onions, who, starting in 1914, compiled the remaining ranges, Su–Sz, Wh–Wo and X–Z. In 1919–1920 J. R. R. Tolkien was employed by the OED, researching etymologies of the Waggle to Warlock range; later he parodied the principal editors as “The Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” in the story Farmer Giles of Ham.

By early 1894 a total of 11 fascicles had been published, or about one per year: four for A–B, five for C, and two for E. Of these, eight were 352 pages long, while the last one in each group was shorter to end at the letter break (which would eventually become a volume break). At this point it was decided to publish the work in smaller and more frequent installments; once every three months, beginning in 1895, there would be a fascicle of 64 pages, priced at 2s 6d. If enough material was ready, 128 or even 192 pages would be published together. This pace was maintained until World War I forced reductions in staff. Also in 1895, the title Oxford English Dictionary was first used. It then appeared only on the outer covers of the fascicles; the original title was still the official one and was used everywhere else.

The 125th and last fascicle, covering words from Wise to the end of W, was published on 19 April 1928, and the full dictionary in bound volumes followed immediately.

I feel a special affection for OED because I have used it so often in my research and writing, and because I have written or contributed to more than 50 entries for the 3rd edition, and am still on call as an expert in certain fields (very proud — even though it’s a sin). I also just love the eccentric dedication of the editors and readers over the years, not to mention their extraordinary knowledge.

Coming up with recipe ideas for OED is easy-peasy lemon-squeazy. There are soooo many British dishes with mad names. I’ve already given recipes for or alluded to bubble and squeak, Cornish yarg, cranachan, toad in the hole, cullen skink, singing hinnies, and more. Then there’s love in disguise (stuffed veal hearts), stargazy pie (fish pie with heads baked into the crust, looking up), Lucky Tatties, (a cinnamon fondant sweet), devils on horseback, (bacon wrapped prunes), rumbledethumps (bubble and squeak topped with cheese and baked), and others. A lexicographer’s dream !!



Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

Bedfordshire Clanger

Bedfordshire Clanger

Devils on Horeseback

Devils on Horeseback

I have settled on soles in coffins, a play on words (soles/souls), and a delightful dish that can be very simple or gourmet complex. The simple (original) version involves scooping out the innards of a baked potato, then refilling the skin with a flap for the lid, and topping with sole filets in sauce. The gourmet version is here: http://www.greatbritishchefs.com/recipes/soles-in-coffins-recipe. Apparently it is a celebrity dish. It is the creation of chef Marcus Wareing, and a signature dish of The Gilbert Scott (bar and restaurant in King’s Cross). It’s a tasty dish and easy to prepare, but I feel it strays too far from the idea of coffins using mashed potato as a base instead of baked.


Instead here is my original recipe which sticks reasonably close to the traditional..


©Soles in Coffins



4 lemon sole filets,
2 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper
plain flour

Baked potatoes

4 baking potatoes
2 oz/50g butter
½ cup/50ml cream
salt and pepper


2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
½ tbsp butter
½ tbsp plain flour
1 ½ cups/300ml fish stock
1 ½ cups/300ml double cream
salt and pepper
juice of half a lemon
fresh chervil (or dill), to garnish


Bake the potatoes for 1 hour at 350°F/180°C.

Meanwhile make the sauce, by sweating the shallots in the butter over medium heat, then adding the flour and whisking briskly to form a white roux. Do not let it take on color. Add the fish stock, continuing to whisk briskly. Add the dill, parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste, and let simmer to thicken and reduce. Add the cream and continue to simmer until thick. Keep warm.

Cut a small hinged flap (see photo) in the top of each potato, and scoop out the meat. Mash the scooped out potato with butter, cream, plus salt and pepper to taste. Refill the skins. Keep warm.

Dust the filets with a little flour plus salt and pepper to taste. Fry them in oil over medium high heat until they are golden on both sides.

Place one potato on each plate. Tuck a filet in each coffin, cover with sauce, and garnish with chopped chervil or dill.

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