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MATERIALS FOR THE HISTORY OFTHE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY A LETTER TO THE VERY REV. THE DEAN OF WESTMINSTER HERBERT COLERIDGE, ESQ. The history of the Oxford English Dictionary begins in November 1857, when Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster Abbey, presented two papers to the Philological Society that were subsequently published under the title On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries. Dean Trench was well known for his philological scholarship, and his book English, Past and Present had already appeared in several editions and would continue to enjoy a wide readership through the nineteenth century. Thus his call for a New English Dictionary to repair deficiencies in those dictionaries published under the names Johnson and Richardson was particularly influential in stimulating the Philological Society to begin work. When the second edition of Trench 's Deficiencies appeared in 1860, an appendix introduced to the public "A Letter to the Author from Herbert Coleridge, Esq., on the Progress and Prospects of the Society's New English Dictionary." As part of our continuing series ofmaterials illuminating the history ofthe OED, we reprint that letter below. Herbert Coleridge (18Í0-1861) was eventually named by the Philological Society as the editor of the proposed New Dictionary, but even without the title, he had, as his letter explains, earlier taken charge oforganizing the work. Grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he came from a literary family, and his mother Sara had spent much of her life editing her father's papers and composing books for children. Though she died at an early age, she did survive long enough to take pride in Herbert's double-first (in classics and mathematics) at Balliol. (His father was also known as a scholar and author but had died when Herbert was only twelve.) Leaving Oxford, Coleridge was called to the bar and began a career as a chancery barrister. The Dictionary of National Biography continues with the following account of his 115 116A Letter to The Dean of Westminster avocation: "As his private means, though small, were sufficient to relieve him from any pressing pecuniary anxieties, he felt at liberty to devote his leisure hours to philological studies— Sanscrit, the northern tongues, and particularly the language and literature of Iceland being his chosen field of study." Elected to the Philological Society in early 1857, Coleridge was on hand when Trench proposed that the Society turn its attention to English lexicography. By 1860, Coleridge had recruited 147 volunteers (not counting Americans and three who had died). From what he and the volunteers had gathered, he published A Glossarial Index to the Printed English Literature of the Thirteenth Century (London: Trubner, 1859). This list—posthumously reprinted as A Dictionary of the First or Oldest Words in the English Language (London: Holten, 1862)—was in his view the foundation-stone for the Dictionary. Taken ill almost immediately after his "Letter" appeared, Coleridge died of consumption on April 2i, 1861. According to his biographer, "during the last fortnight of his life, while confined to bed, he still sometimes dictated notes for the dictionary. " As the "Letter" shows, Coleridge resembled almost all editors ofdictionaries in optimism about the time required to complete the work. Of course there was an "unforeseen accident" that delayed it, but even so it seems unlikely that "about two years" would have resulted in the commencement ofpublication of a dictionary of the kindforeseen by the Philological Society. Still, Coleridge's extensive labors made it possible for James A. H. Murray to resume work in 1879 rather than commence it. Recalling Coleridge's "Letter, " Murray later wrote: "The young co-workers, for both Furnivall and Coleridge were still in early manhood, had not only all the optimism of youth, but were embarking on an uncharted sea, quite unwitting of the long course which had to be sailed before thefarther shore could even come into sight. " R WB. Herbert Coleridge117 10, Chester-place, Regent's-park, May 30th, 1860. My dear Mr. Dean,— As a new edition of your essay On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries is about to appear, I wish to take this opportunity of laying before you some details relative to the scheme of a New Dictionary projected...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 115-124
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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