The Quick 10: The Surprisingly Sordid History of the OED (and other facts)


In February 1884, the first volume - A through Ant - of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It's been one of the most widely used dictionaries ever since, and it's certainly the largest (Guinness says so). You might think the creation of such a benign publication would be fairly drama-free, but that's not the case. Here are a few of the spicier facts about the OED (and a few that aren't).

2. It takes a lot of people to compile such a massive amount of work, so editors used vast quantities of volunteer "readers," people who would submit interesting quotations. It wasn't until late in his career that editor James Murray found out that one of his most reliable and prolific readers was actually a patient at The Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He was put there for killing a man he thought had broken into his room. Far from being upset, Murray ended up befriending W.C. Minor and visited him often in the hospital. Unfortunately, working on the OED did little to improve Minor's mental health - he cut off his own penis in 1902 and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

3. A couple of famous writers have worked for the OED, but it's hard to beat J.R.R.Tolkien.

He worked quite specifically on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. He was none too complimentary of his time there - he later wrote a fable called Farmer Giles of Ham featuring the "Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford," a spoof of his editors there. Tolkien deeply respected the purpose of the Oxford English Dictionary but often found himself at odds with his editors.

4. Despite being considered one of the most accurate sources in history, the OED sometimes gets it wrong, too. With approximately 600,000 words, it would be hard not to make a couple of errors, don't you think? Last year, an Australian physicist looked up the word "siphon" in the tome and discovered that it incorrectly said it was atmospheric pressure that makes the act of siphoning work. It's actually gravity that does the trick. The physicist alerted editors to the mistake that had been hiding in the OED's pages for nearly 100 years; they promised to fix it and noted that the entry had been made by "editors who were not scientists."

5. The 2010 additions to the OED include ridiculous slang like "bromance" and "chillax," and even really of-the-moment words such as "tweetup" and "vuvuzela." So why is that controversial? Some literary enthusiasts are quite upset that those words are being included while words coined by respected authors such as Virginia Woolf continue to go unnoticed.

And the non-sordid facts:

7. To convert the OED to an online format, more than 120 typists were required. They keyed in more than 350 million characters, which were then checked by 55 proofreaders.

8. British quiz show Countdown awards champions the full leather-bound set, which is not exactly a chintzy parting gift - the blue leather 20-volume set is currently selling for $6,295 on Amazon.

9. It's said that when author W.H. Auden died, his OED was found in such shambles it was hardly legible - that's how much he used it. Auden apparently dreamed of the day his name would grace its pages. He got his wish - his name is in the full set at least 700 times, including credit for coining more than 100 words.

10. Author Ammon Shea issued himself a personal challenge to get through all 20 volumes - that's 21,730 pages - in just a year. He wrote a book about it, in fact.

Some of his favorite words?

Yepsen (n.) The amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also, the two cupped hands themselves.

Fard (v.) To paint the face with cosmetics, so as to hide blemishes.

Apricity (n.) The warmth of the sun in winter.