definition word from a free dictionary, close up
definition word from a free dictionary, close up
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Professor Charlotte Brewer

Because the Oxford English Dictionary was based on examples of real usage it wasn't just a history of the language but a history of 'English' thoughts, history and lived experience over the course of the time that the language had been in existence and written down... a wonderful cultural as well as linguistic record.

Could you outline the history, production and people behind what became the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?
In 1859 a group of gentleman scholars, members of the London Philological Society (philological meaning ‘relating to the study of language’), got together and agreed that no satisfactory dictionaries of the English language were then in existence. So they decided they would go about creating one. They had no resources themselves: they appealed to the public, put out leaflets in newspapers and journals and asked friends and acquaintances to join in, organising all these people to read through countless printed texts of every kind and send in quotations of how words had been used in English from 1150 to the present day. It took many years for results to appear – the first edition wasn’t completed till 1928 – but eventually much of this material went into creating an enormous new dictionary of English, based on examples of real usage, which told the story of the English language from its early records onwards.

An enormous new dictionary of English, based on examples of real usage, which told the story of the English language from its early records onwards.

Many of the quotations used as evidence of English usage through the ages were from the pearls of English literary culture – the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope etc – and the lexicographers drew on a variety of more specialised sources too, from every imaginable discipline (science, technology, business, art – from how to make a carriage to how to grow cabbages). The OED, as it was eventually named, wasn’t just a history of the language therefore but also a history of ‘English’ thoughts, history and lived experience over the course of the time that the language had been in existence and written down. And in fact, soon after it started appearing in successive printed instalments from the 1880s on, the OED  became a symbol of the English-speaking people: their thoughts and feelings, passions and beliefs – not just the language in the abstract. That makes the dictionary a wonderful cultural as well as linguistic record – and it is still unmatched as a record of examples of written English and of historical lexical scholarship.

Were there any immediate studies or analysis of changes in culture and society born out of the creation of the OED?
No, investigation of this sort has barely started – though it first started to be possible to scrutinise the work more analytically when the first edition and 20th-century supplement were digitised in the late 1980s. You could begin to look at where the quotations in the OED came from. The largest single source was Shakespeare with around 33,300 quotations. When you realise that the dictionary is based on its quotations, you start thinking: ‘Does that really reflect Shakespeare’s influence on the language?’ The second most-quoted person is Walter Scott – the most published author in the 19th century and incredibly popular among the educated upper and middle classes – exactly the sort of people who were searching out the quotations! Then you have the Bible, Milton, Dickens – no women in the top 12 or 15 most quoted authors, in fact no women at all until George Eliot with around 3,000 quotations. Obviously, what goes in determines what comes out. So when you investigate the quotation sources comparatively you can start to see that it tells you as much about the people making the dictionary as about the language itself.

This is a fantastic repository of information about dominant late-19th-century culture and how it was thought that great writers created language.

So digitalisation allows you to turn the dictionary inside out and start looking at how it was put together. On the one hand you think ‘This is culturally biased,’ on the other hand: ‘This is a fantastic repository of information about dominant late-19th-century culture and how it was thought that great writers created language.’ In other words the choice of which words to include, how to define them and which sources to quote tells you a huge amount about, for example, historical attitudes towards literature, race, sex and sexuality, and so on.

How long did it take to make the dictionary?
Years and years! Eventually Oxford University Press took over the dictionary in the late 1870s and it got a proper institutional home and stability – though the editors always felt they were on a knife edge, caught between wanting to produce something as perfect and scholarly as possible, and the publishers flogging them on in case they never ever finished. The Chief Editor, Sir James Murray, lived up at 78 Banbury Road, Oxford, in a lovely, big Victorian household with his wife and 11 children, all of whom helped him work on the dictionary. He died before it was finished in 1915 and it wasn’t complete until 1928-70 years from first being thought of to being finished and then 44 years to be published. That was an enormous financial burden on Oxford University Press, especially when you compare other national dictionaries of language – Spanish, French, Italian – which had all been funded by the state.

Nobody had the energy to add to it (beyond a single one-volume supplement in 1933) until the late 1950s, when work began on a second supplement (published 1972-86). Then in 1989 a second edition came out which merged the supplements with the original Victorian–Edwardian dictionary. At the same time, OUP digitised the dictionary and around 10 years later decided to undertake a proper revision of the entire work, the first in its history, which has been gradually coming out online since 2000; it’s getting on for the halfway mark, but it will be a few decades before it’s finished.

Do you think the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary was not state funded added a degree of liberalism to how we defined the English language – a product of popular and not state judgement?
There are various countries around the world where there are attempts to regulate language. The most famous example is the Académie française, which dictates what should and shouldn’t be ‘proper French’. Dr Johnson’s dictionary was contrasted with the French Academy when it was published in 1755: that one free Englishman could produce a dictionary on his own compared with 40 Frenchmen, under the auspices of the state – this was seen as a symbol of English independence, initiative and resourcefulness.

Not being state sponsored means that the dictionary has never had to conform to any top-down notion of what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ language is. 

Not being state sponsored means that the dictionary has never had to conform to any top-down notion of what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ language is. In fact, one of the things that marks out the OED is that it’s based on real evidence of usage: it’s the only comprehensive historical dictionary of English and, crucially, it was the first English dictionary to determine that its function was to describe the language as it is rather than to set it down as it should be. That has been a very important principle of lexicography into the 20th century.

That having been said, it’s incredibly difficult to be completely objective and there are all sorts of examples where you can find the editors slipping their own views in, or saying things like: ‘Despite the fact that most people use the word in this way, it should be used in the other way.’ So – this is one of the fascinating thing about the OED – while you initially think: ‘This is a monument to impartial, objective scholarship,' you start looking at words to do with correctness or sexuality or with regionality, politics or whatever and you realise that despite the vast quantities of authoritative lexical record and scholarship there is also, inevitably, inconsistency, bias and human error.

What about public engagement – in what ways do the public use the OED and engage with it?
Public engagement has always been important for the OED and for dictionaries more generally – they are a commercial product and they need to sell! Though in its commitment to objective descriptivism the OED has sometimes found itself under attack – there was a case in 2007 where McDonald's got very upset about the OED (the newly revised, online OED) having put  ‘McJob’ in the dictionary. They felt – rightly so! – that it was pejorative: it was recording a pejorative reference. Their commercial interests were at stake and they wanted OED to take it out, and of course the dictionary refused, as it should. The evidence of sustained usage over time was there, in the public record, and that was that. It’s a bit Orwellian to think that the dictionary’s job should be to restrict people’s language – and that that can lead to restricting how people think.

It’s a bit Orwellian to think that the dictionary’s job should be to restrict people’s language – and that that can lead to restricting how people think.

But it is also true that people feel that dictionaries have a responsibility to educate and to promote the ‘right’ sort of ideas and culture. For example, a story that popped up again just recently is about how the Oxford Junior Dictionary has, in recent editions, cut out words to do with nature, like ‘willow’, ‘acorn’, ‘conker’ and so on and replaced them with words like ‘broadband’ and ‘mp3 player.’ Some really distinguished famous writers – Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and others – wrote an open letter to Oxford University Press saying that your job as a cultural bastion is to make sure that these words  about the countryside remain, so that we can educate our children about the importance of nature. OUP quite rightly and robustly responded that ‘Our job is not to prescribe, we just reflect language usage.’

Do you think that the very act of creating an authoritative record of the English language standardised it?
That’s been a long debate amongst linguists – about how a standard language emerges, and what part wordbooks play in it. There is an argument that once you start writing language down, ‘codifying’ it, the very act of reproducing the evidence formally in a substantial printed volume, with serried ranks of word lists, definitions, quotations and scholarly apparatus, transmutes the thing into a prescriptive authority whether you like it or not. It’s a very unusual dictionary user who understands that dictionaries are describing, not prescribing. And to some extent it’s impossible to have an objective record of language. 

When the dictionary was first digitised, what kind of studies of it emerged?
The original dictionary was published in 13 huge volumes and it was impossible to study its content systematically. So if you wanted to look at how various sorts of linguistic features (suffixes, spellings, etymologies etc) had developed and changed through time, you’d have to think of a lot of likely words, then look them up one by one – and you would never be sure that you’d got them all. Once the work was digitised, you could identify all the relevant entries – in their hundreds and thousands if need be – with a few keystrokes, and subject them to proper systematic analysis. Obviously, you have to be cautious in interpreting the results and bear in mind the conditions under which the original evidence was gathered.

 You can look at how definitional practices have changed, too, which tells you about the lexicographers – or about changes in culture – as much as about language itself. For example: ‘unnatural’ is an interesting definitional word which appeared in many first-edition entries for homosexual terms. I was really shocked when I found that some of these entries were still there in the second OED (published in 1989), and still on our shelves therefore in today’s current print version of the OED. It’s only since 2010 that they’ve disappeared from the online version – the editors obviously searched for ‘unnatural’ and deleted it!

The digitised OED, then, enables not just linguistic analysis but also the analysis of things and concepts: of ideas or beliefs.

The other fantastic thing you can do with the digitised dictionary is look at relationships between meanings (since meanings of words don’t adhere to alphabetical order at all) – so you can use the dictionary as a historical thesaurus. In fact there is now an Oxford historical thesaurus, which has done just that: it’s taken the original OED and completely rearranged it according to meanings. You can look up ‘family’ and see all the different words for family and the history of those words.

The digitised OED, then, enables not just linguistic analysis but also the analysis of things and concepts: of ideas or beliefs.

How did you come to be where you are now? What was your academic trajectory?
I was a student at St Anne’s in 1975–8 and then I did an MA at Toronto University (largely because I got a scholarship). At that point, I was very interested in the medieval period and I worked on a manuscript of Piers Plowman. Together with my supervisor, I was lucky enough to be the first person to read this version properly – we used a microfilm in Toronto, though ironically the original manuscript is in the Bodleian – and we argued the case for it being the first version of this particular poem.

Up until about 2000, almost all my work was on medieval editing and Piers Plowman. Piers Plowman had a very significant 19th-century editor, W W Skeat, and I came across a whole cache of his letters and correspondence in University College London. As a medievalist you work with manuscripts, but inevitably you are at a great distance chronologically from the actual archival evidence (which is often thin on the ground). Whereas in the 19th century you’ve often got an abundance of letters and papers and all sorts of personal material, and you can build up a more coherent picture of the network of scholars. It was clear that Skeat was a friend of James Murray, the first major editor of the OED, and that Skeat himself helped enormously with creating the OED. That led me into the history of the OED and how it was edited. So I segued from one area to another, and I’ve been concentrating on the OED now almost exclusively for the last 10–15 years.

What are you working on right now?
At this minute, children’s dictionaries – this research topic came up when a colleague of mine at UCL and I started chatting about matters of grammar and we decided that what London needed was an English Grammar Day. We’ve just held the second of two English Grammar Days, open to the public at the British Library. They’ve been enthusiastically attended (you wouldn't think it would be an immensely attractive subject!) and this summer I gave a talk about the nature words story I’ve just mentioned, to explain how dictionaries are made. Today’s dictionaries work out what words are current by using corpuses such as the Oxford Corpus which has over 2 billion words and takes samples of languages from many different fields of discourse and tries to be representative and balanced. So you can look at how often the word ‘acorn’ comes up in texts which children are reading or are on the National Curriculum and compare that with words like ‘Wi-Fi’ and it’s clear that one is used far more frequently than the other – so that’s why the one is included and the other isn’t. You can’t ask dictionaries to regulate language; that’s not what they’re for.

While researching this, I discovered that there were lots of inconsistencies in children’s dictionaries. I’m just writing an article on this, looking for example at how sexual organs are treated – whether they’re included and how they are defined. ‘Penis’ is usually defined as being used for urination and sexual intercourse, whereas ‘vagina’ is only ever defined in terms of reproduction – no mention of sex or any indication of pleasure! In fact that’s typical of other dictionaries too, not just of children’s dictionaries. The way that dictionaries encode these cultural biases is absolutely fascinating.

I’ve just published an article on Jane Austen’s language and vocabulary as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. She’s quoted for all sorts of words to do with domestic matters, sewing and so on. She’s hardly ever quoted for moral words or words to do with principles and evaluative judgement – even though she’s probably more famous for that! That tells you something about gender and the OED…