In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver
  • George Goebel (bio)
The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xx + 625. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-19-928362-0.

In this magnificent book, Peter Gilliver traces "the development of the original idea of the OED from its earliest roots through the various stages of its realization, down to (more or less) the present day" (x). It is not concerned, as Gilliver is careful to say, "with detailed assessment or analysis of the content of the Dictionary," but there are some exceptions: two "interludes" (of which more below), and 32 "capsules"—short articles on individual words which illustrate various points of policy or method, or are simply interesting for their own sake. It is, as one would expect from someone with Gilliver's practical experience as a lexicographer, concerned at almost every turn with issues, both theoretical and practical, that are central to any endeavor of historical lexicography. The density of Gilliver's research and the detail of treatment are impressive, but they are never displayed for their own sake; despite the often complex interplay of events, the narrative remains clear, focused, and readable.

The first two chapters and an "interlude" treat in considerable detail the prehistory of the OED. The first, after giving some background on the state of lexicography in the early nineteenth century, traces the activities of the Philological Society and its "Committee to collect unregistered words in English," established in 1857 and consisting of Herbert Coleridge, Frederick Furnivall, and Richard Chenevix Trench, through Coleridge's brief stint as editor of the Society's dictionary, cut short by his untimely death in 1861. Trench's famous essay "On some [End Page 116] Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries" (1857) is often represented as the inspiration for the Society's activities, but Gilliver argues that it largely represents the thinking of the committee as a whole. Nor was it the only statement of their thinking. A series of papers and prospectuses followed, culminating in the "Canones Lexicographici" drafted by Coleridge and subsequently reviewed first by a special committee and then at meetings of the whole Society. Gilliver's analysis of this series of documents gives a lively picture of the committee and the Society as a whole grappling with basic questions about the scope of the proposed dictionary. Amazingly, Coleridge had already begun drafting entries before his death, and Gilliver ends the chapter with a comparison of the surviving entries both with the rules set forth in the "Canones" and with their later counterparts in the OED.

With Coleridge's death, Furnivall became the head of the dictionary project. Realizing that the quotations already collected were quite inadequate for the full dictionary envisaged by the society, he proposed compiling a preliminary "Concise Dictionary," which would then form a basis for determining what further evidence was needed for the full dictionary. He also proposed that work be divided up among volunteer sub-editors. Unfortunately, Furnivall was much better at enlisting volunteers than he was in giving them continuing supervision and support, and the narrative of this episode is largely a depressing tale of initial enthusiasm and activity withering away. In the "interlude" that follows ("The work of Furnivall's sub-editors"), however, Gilliver sets out to assess what they did accomplish before this second attempt at a dictionary had fizzled out. The evidence is limited because most of the sub-editors' work was cannibalized during later work on the OED, but enough remains "to give some indication of the editorial practice—or range of practices—adopted for Furnivall's Dictionary" (62). From Gilliver's analysis it is clear that some of the sub-editors were competent and diligent workers. Indeed, one of them, a then relatively young W. W. Skeat, obviously had a much better idea than Furnivall did of what would be required to produce a publishable work. Soon after beginning on the letter R in 1865, he wrote to Furnivall with a number of eminently practical suggestions, but there is apparently no evidence that Furnivall ever acted on them. With this lack of central direction, the project was clearly...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 116-122
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.