The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they’ve been in.



Writing a Dictionary

From March 2000, words have been published in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online in quarterly batches of over 1,000. Editors begin their revisions at the letter M. Previously they had started with A, but this meant that the earliest entries were the work of an inexperienced editor. To counteract this, the new revised version begins with M so that words like aardvark will be written by people who’ve got their eye in.
The final word submitted to the first edition of the OED was ‘wyzen’, an old Scottish word for the windpipe; X,Y,Z was completed 7 years before the end, as it was short and relatively easy to do.
Dictionaries take a long time to complete. The final instalment of the 1st edition of the OED was published in 1928, 70 years after its inception and 44 years after the first volume was published. The Brothers Grimm began their Deutsch Worterbuch in 1838; it was finished 123 years later. The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal of the Netherlands, which claimed to be ‘the biggest dictionary in the world’ took 147 years, finally going to press in 1998.
Writing a dictionary entails voluntary ‘readers’ submitting words for about 50 editorial staff to sort and select. The 1928 OED was based on roughly five million quotations from literature submitted by volunteers, of which around 1,800,000 were included in print. One famous ‘reader’ was William Chester Minor, an inmate at Broadmoor whom editor James Murray believed to be a medical man or warder. Minor stopped work in 1902 after cutting off his own penis in a fit of self-loathing.

WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897-1962) on Hemingway

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.

The first English alphabetical dictionary came out in 1604 and only included 3,000 words.

An Extensive Vocabulary

The second edition of the OED contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about one-quarter are adjectives, and about one-seventh verbs; the rest are interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. As this doesn’t include entries with senses for different parts of speech, there are probably at least 250,000 distinct English words. If you include omitted words from technical and regional vocabulary, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, as well as the distinct senses of each word, the total approaches 750,000. Adding proper nouns and names means the most conservative estimate of the number of words in English exceeds 3 million.
English has an unusually large number of words. This is because it was originally a Germanic language, related to Dutch and German, and it shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary with those languages. However, after the Norman Conquest in 1066 it was hugely influenced by Norman French, which became the language of the ruling class for a considerable period, and by Latin, which was the language of scholarship and of the Church. Very large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. Consequently, English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the members of the Romance language family to which French belongs.

The Chambers Dictionary of the Twentieth Century (1901), defined 'Éclair' as 'A small cake, long in length but short in duration'.

Dr Johnson was half-deaf, blind in one eye, scarred from scrofula, prone to melancholia, and suffered from Tourette's.


Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.

Dr Johnson

Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. He wrote 42,773 definitions in seven years, assisted only by a team of copyists. The equivalent French Dictionary took 40 scholars 55 years.

Johnson’s wasn't the first dictionary, but it set new standards of scholarship for lexicographers; in particular it originated the practice of listing literary citations. It was treated as authoritative until the OED started to appear in the 1880s.

Until the 18th century, most dictionaries were not ordered alphabetically, but instead were arranged by topic.

An Etymologist’s Rhyme

When the original OED team completed A, B, and C, etymologist Walter Skeat sent them this:
Wherever the English speech is spread,
And the Union Jack flies free,
The news will be gratefully, proudly read
That you've conquered your A, B, C.
But I fear it will come
As a shock to some

That the sad result will be

That you're taking to dabble and dawdle and doze,
To dolour and dumps, and - worse than those -

To danger and drink

And - shocking to think -

To words that begin with D.


The word 'bathroom' appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time in 1972, in the Supplement.

Spaced Out

‘Dord’ is a quite interesting word because it once, very briefly, appeared in a dictionary and was then removed.

Dord appeared in the 1934 Merriam Webster American English Dictionary with a definition of ‘density’. It was then whipped out in the next edition when the error was spotted. The abbreviation for density is D, which can be written in either upper or lower case. So the dictionary writers put ‘D or d’ next to ‘density’ but, thanks to poor spacing, it was misread by the typesetters as ‘dord’.

The OED 1st edition defines 'Abbreviator' as 'An officer of the court of Rome, appointed ... to draw up the Pope's briefs'.


If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?

Sweden's version of the OED, Svenska Akademiens Ordbok (or SOAB) had its first volume published in 1898, and is still not complete.

Samuel Johnson's first dictionary gave 134 different senses of the verb 'to take', which occupied five pages and about 8,000 words.