Lexicography (2019) 6:157–160



Peter Gilliver: The making of Oxford English dictionary

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016, 688 p, ISBN-13: 978-0199283620, ISBN-10: 0199283621

Anna Marietta da Silva1

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (TMOED) is not the first piece of work on the creation of the OED. At least three authors have done similar work within the quarter century, e.g., Willinsky (1994), Winchester (2003) and Ogilvie (2012). All of them admit the OED as the greatest work in the history of the English words compilation and narrate the complexity surround the birth of the OED. How­ever, each book has different highlights. With two-hundred and sixty four pages, the first, written by a teacher and author, focuses on the authority of a dictionary to answer a curious question of “Where do all meanings of words in the dictionary come from?” (Willinsky 1994). The second illustrates the history of compiling the OED using an imaginative style of a former geologist, journalist and author across two-hundred and eighty-eight pages (Winchester 2003). The last, with two-hundred and sixty-eight pages analytically written by a former OED lexicographer, attempts to confirm that OED does not come from and belong to the English people per se, but those outside England, as well. Hence, with six-hundred and twenty-five pages describing the initial Editorship of the OED until that just before the book was pub­lished in 2016, TMOED may be the most comprehensive recording of historical events behind the creation of OED. Undeniably, the dictionary is based on the huge amount of relevant lexicographic archives that have been thoroughly collected and meticulously arranged. Examples of the files i nclude, among o thers, l etters, peri­odicals, newspaper articles, TV broadcasts, testimonies, and interviews. Such enor­mous documentation can be perfectly compiled not by anybody, but only by few experienced, authoritative, and dedicated lexicographers such as Gilliver himself. Undoubtedly, making the stack of the old and present notes tells a complete, remark­able, and inspiring story behind the creation of OED needs carefulness, patience, consistency, and an insider’s honest point of view. Gilliver has definitely shown all these qualities.

The book is divided into 13 chapters that illustrate the long, complex, and pain­ful process that the editors have gone through in compiling OED, from its first to third editions. Gilliver has smartly divided the chapters based on the most important events or incidents that have powerful and direct effects on the entire process. From the beginning, he noted several key parties that played the most important roles in the making of OED, namely the Philological Society, the Editors (with their pic­tures; some were members of the Society), the Oxford Delegates (and the Press), sub-editors, assistants, numerous contributors as well as readers.

Chapter 1 opens with the initial thoughts about creating the historical English dictionary and the first steps pioneered by the leading three figures, namely Freder­ick Furnivall, Richard Chevenix Trench, and Herbert Coleridge. The last was the ‘de facto’ first editor of the dictionary. Chapter 2 and its sub-chapter describe the period after Coleridge’s passing, with the appointment of Furnivall as the Editor, who then collaborated with James A.H. Murray. This chapter also highlights the change of plan from making a small dictionary to a large dictionary, given that the Royal’s family gave their support to the latter. The chapter ends with Furnivall’s failure to finish the dictionary because of several reasons, for example, his other editorial duties, his financial hardship, the death of his daughter, and incompetent sub-edi­tors. Chapter 3 reports the complex maneuvers that were carried out to sustain the dictionary making process, which was ended by the negotiation between the Society, the Delegates, and Murray to work on and publish the dictionary. Chapter 4 tells the long and complicated process of writing the entries under Murray’s full supervision as well as the problems confronted, e.g., the publication of other dictionaries from some competitors, several sub-editors’ withdrawal, and lack of professional financial support from the Delegates. Yet, the chapter’s final was a success, with the publica­tion of the first volume of the Dictionary. It should be noted that starting from this to the last chapters Gilliver provides at least one ‘capsule’ in each chapter. Every capsule consists of the first-hand story behind the process of creating one particular entry, which I believe is a precious knowledge sharing that is too good to miss.

In Chapter 5, the editorship is reported to be divided into two, i.e. Murray and Henry Bradley, with the former being the chief editor who worked in the Scrip­torium in Oxford and the latter in Lavender Hill. The completion of OED second volume is also presented here. Chapter 6, as the title suggests, is marked with the storm and stress during the process of finishing the next volumes. The challenges were the Asiatic flu that hit the team, the dictionary publication of one competi­tor, the withdrawals of some assistants, the dreadful autumn in the Scriptorium, and the fact that Murray was slowing down due to his age. The last one led to the consideration of assigning William Alexander Craigie to be the Third Edi­tor. This chapter’s final note is the publication of OED third volume. The Inter­lude describes the methods of writing OED entry employed by Murray and his team. Chapter 7 explains not only the old problems, but also Murray’s approval of Craigie’s appointment as the Third Editor, the completion of the fourth, fifth and sixth volumes, and the coming of the future fourth Editor, Charles Onions. Other important events include several honors received by Murray and Bradley and some strategies to cover the entire expenses by making the published volumes affordable and the dictionary abridgments, which proved to be a great success.

The chapter is ended by the passing of Murray. Chapter 8 narrates the slow pro­gress of the team’s work after Murray’s death, which was caused by the following issues: the First World War, difficulties in drafting the entries of St and U, and Craigie’s visits to Romania, India, and the USA to give public lectures. Chapter 9 starts with the passing of Bradley because of a stroke, followed by a description of the final process and the problems surrounding it. This chapter also reports the publication of the complete first edition of OED on April 19, 1928, which garnered a big triumph and the reissue of OED 12 volumes and the Supplement in 1933. Another important note is the recruit of the new editor, James McLeod Wyllie before the Supplement was completed.

Chapter 10 illustrates the continuing dictionary projects by Oxford including the revision of OED or the Second Supplement, Wyllie’s editorial duties for some of the projects, and the effect of the Second World War to the projects. The chapter also explains that Wyllie turned out to suffer from a mental breakdown that led to his ter­mination and a period without an editor. Consequently, all of the events slowed the progress. The chapter’s closing note is the appointment of Robert Burchfield as the new Editor of the Second Supplement. Chapter 11 explores the preparation of the Supplement under the supervision of Burchfield, who had very little experience as a lexicographer. Burchfield decided that the Second Supplement must include entries from the varieties of English, e.g. New Zealand English, South African English, and Australian English, and the work was divided into several volumes. The first volume was finally published in 1972. Chapter 12 describes the duties Burchfield under­took in addition to being the Supplement’s editor, i.e., the International Lexicog­rapher Ambassador for Oxford and the Chief Editor of several Oxford dictionaries, the computerization in the Press in 1983 which directed to the new project, i.e., an electronic database of OED and the Supplement. The completion and publication of the Second Supplement in 1986 produced a movement to the next project, i.e., the Second Edition of OED in both printed and electronic versions. The 20 volumes of OED 2 were finally published in 1989, but thoughts and discussion about the Third Edition of OED have also started. Chapter 13 describes the preparation for the Third Edition of OED including several policy changes with regard to the coverage and entries as well as the launch of OED online in 2000. The Epilogue states that the project has not yet finished, and the computerization and the invention of the World Wide Web have brought a lot of advantages to the editorial team and the public users which were unthinkable centuries ago.

In short, TMOED should be seen as much more than a story about the ‘great’ dictionary per se. The book depicts the uphill struggles of OED creators during the process of its writing. Difficulties ranged from lacking the financial support, collect­ing and managing huge amount of sources, creating an effective yet efficient system of writing the entries, revising and editing the proofs to searching for the capable editors and assistants, keeping them in the team, and gradually losing them because of illness, death, war or betrayal. Being so rich in detail such as names, places, dates, events, and happenings that surround OED, the book is actually about the people starting, making, and continuing the journey of OED. Hence, the book is highly recommended for lexicographers, linguists, teachers, language planners, diction­ary users, and fans. In reading this book, readers will obtain a new perspective of seeing OED: from a dictionary to a masterpiece created by dedicated parties work­ing together because of their enormous love and pride of English.


Ogilvie S (2012) Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Willinsky J (1994) Empire of words: The reign of the oxford english dictionary. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Winchester S (2003) The meaning of everything: The story of the oxford english dictionary. Oxford Uni­versity Press, Oxford

Publisher’s Note The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


* Anna Marietta da Silva

1 Department of Applied English Linguistics, Faculty of Education and Language, ATMA JAYA Catholic University of Indonesia, Jakarta, Indonesia