Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the untrodden forest

Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the untrodden forest. Ed. by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. x, 293. ISBN 0199251959. $40.

Reviewed by Marcus Callies, Philipps-University Marburg

Lexicography and the OED, now available in paperback, is a collection of articles devoted to the endeavors in both lexicography and lexicology that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium. Using much unpublished material from the archives of Oxford University Press and the Murray papers, an international team of scholars sets out to explore the development of this pioneering enterprise, focusing on the history, conception, and editing of the OED’s first edition, which was then published as the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

In the opening chapter ‘ “Pioneers in the untrodden forest”: The new English dictionary’, Lynda Mugglestone describes how the change of the principles of lexicography in the second half of the nineteenth century influenced and guided the dictionary’s conception and editorial process, and gives an overview of the many difficulties the editors encountered in the early stages. In ‘Making the OED: Readers and editors. A critical survey’, Elizabeth Knowles presents a detailed study of the many individuals who were involved in the making of the dictionary and how they interacted in the editorial process, focusing on the OED’s mostly outside volunteer readers, subeditors, and editors, among whom were such diverse figures as J. R. R. Tolkien, who worked on the staff of the OED in his early years, and J. C. Minor, the schizophrenic American surgeon and soldier who was a patient at Broadmoor Mental Asylum.

Using data extracted from the OED’s CD-ROM version, ‘OED sources’, by Charlotte Brewer, examines how the lexicographers determined the range and nature of the texts to be used for the quotations, revealing the dominance of canonical literary authors over nonliterary works, such as scientific texts. Noel Osselton compares the OED with similar endeavors by lexicographers in France, the Netherlands, and Germany in ‘Murray and his European counterparts’.

The following articles cover a range of specific topics. Anne Curzan, in ‘The compass of the vocabulary’, and Penny Silva, in ‘Time and meaning: Sense and definition in the OED’, investigate the selection of entries and the writing of the definitions for the OED, and Dieter Kastovsky, in ‘Words and word-formation: Morphology in OED’, looks into the OED’s organizational principles to include complex lexical items, with etymology being the all-important criterion. Eric Stanley examines the policies adopted by the editors toward the use of Old, Middle, and Early Modern English texts in ‘OED and the earlier history of English’, while Michael Rand Hoare and Vivian Salmon (‘The vocabulary of science in the OED’) and Michael K. C. MacMahon (‘Pronunciation in the OED’) deal with linguistic registers and pronunciation, respectively.

Finally, in ‘ “An historian not a critic”: The standard of usage in the OED’, Mugglestone takes up the paradigm shift in English lexicography and the changing role of the lexicographer from an authoritative language preserver to an impartial linguistic observer, while Richard W. Bailey, in ‘ “This unique and peerless specimen”: The reputation of the OED’, discusses the significance of imperialism, profit, and philology as driving forces behind the project. The volume is rounded off by three appendices: ‘OED sections and parts’, by Jenny McMorris, lists publication dates of the individual sections, parts, and volumes; ‘OED personalia’, by Peter Gilliver, provides short biographical notes of individuals who have contributed actively to the dictionary in several ways; and ‘The OED and the public’, by Bailey, gives a select bibliography of notices and reviews of the OED that appeared from the second half of the nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century. The book closes with a ‘further reading’ section and a general index.

Although the volume focuses on the first edition, what is perhaps missing is a chapter sketching the OED’s development over the last century and the possibilities offered by its advancement into the electronic age. The fact that the dictionary is available both on CD-ROM and as an online publication, with revised entries from the envisaged third edition and additions of new words being published every quarter, has revolutionized the way scholars use it to search and retrieve information, and has made it an even more powerful research tool for linguistic inquiry, especially for studies in morphology, lexical and historical semantics, and etymology.

In sum, this collection gives some fascinating insights into the making of the OED and is an essential reading for lexicographers and students of English (historical) linguistics.