How are Dictionaries Made? The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

Nela Kolčáková

The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

Lexicography is a part of linguistics which many people may not know by name, but they have surely had ample contact with the focus of lexicography’s studies: dictionaries. It has its theoretical aspects, but also its practical aspects. One of the practical aspects is, naturally, compiling and editing a dictionary.
The Oxford English Dictionary certainly was not the first dictionary ever made, nor was it the first English dictionary ever made, but it’s still a stunning lexicographical creation. Plus, the story of how it came to be is fascinating. It all began in 1857, when the Philological Society of London looked at the existing dictionaries of English and decided that they were inadequate because there were many words missing, and that a more comprehensive dictionary should be made. It was originally called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. In 1879, the work began under James A. H. Murray, who was the principal editor of the dictionary. The initial plan was to study vocabulary from the Middle English period onward and compile it into a four-volume dictionary in ten years. After five years, they had only got to the word ‘ant’. They had seriously underestimated the time the work would take.
However, lexicographers were not the only people working on the dictionary. What might come as a surprise was the involvement of the general public in the compilation. While some appeals for people to submit examples of unregistered words were released earlier (the first one in 1857), the lexicographers issued the first public appeal under Professor Murray in April 1879. The appeal contained a history of the project, its goal, and even a list of books for which readers were wanted. Murray later even published specific lists of words that he needed more information on, in the journal Notes and Queries . There were other magazines that reprinted these ‘lists of wants’, so a large number of people could join the hunt for the origins and meanings of the words. That is not to say that the lexicographers were outsourcing all their difficult work.

One of the volunteers who sent in words to the lexicographers was Dr William Chester Minor, who had been committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in the English county of Berkshire for the murder of George Merrett in 1872. Minor suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and during one of his delusions, he shot an innocent passer-by. During Dr Minor’s incarceration, a pamphlet from the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary made its way to him. As he had an extensive book collection, he started looking through the books and then sent his discoveries to Professor Murray. Over the years, Minor sent in over 10,000 quotations, making himself an invaluable helper to Murray and his team.
In the end, neither Murray nor Minor ever got to see the completed Oxford English Dictionary. As everything had to be done on paper and by hand, it was not until 1928 that all the volumes of the first edition were finally published. James Murray died in 1915. William Chester Minor outlived him by five years, dying in the US in 1920 of pneumonia.

If you are interested in the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, several books have been written about it. The first one, published in 2001, is Caught in the Web of Words by Murray’s granddaughter K.M. Elisabeth Murray. Simon Winchester has written two books concerning this issue: The Meaning of Everything (2004) and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998). In the United States and Canada The Surgeon of Crowthorne came out under the title The Professor and the Madman. There is also a movie called The Professor and the Madman, which was inspired by the book. It came out in 2019; directed by Farhad Safinia, it stars Sean Penn as Dr Minor and Mel Gibson as Professor Murray. The movie is interesting and well-made; however, it contains some quite graphic parts which are not entirely pleasant. The one thing that I can honestly say is that I had never expected to cry while watching a movie about a dictionary, and yet I did.

In the end, one can only conclude that lexicography and compiling dictionaries is much more riveting than it might seem at first glance.

A tortured soul finds redemption in words. (2009). Yale School of Medicine.
April 1879 Appeal. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 30 March 2022, from
History of the OED. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 30 March 2022, from
The history of the OED Appeals. (2012, October 8). OUPblog.