LINGUIST List 14.2627

Tue Sep 30 2003

Review: Lexicography: Mugglestone (2002), 2nd review

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  1. Andrzej Zychla, Lexicography and the OED

Message 1: Lexicography and the OED

Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2003 18:27:18 +0000
From: Andrzej Zychla <>
Subject: Lexicography and the OED

Mugglestone, Lynda, ed. (2002) Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in
the Untrodden Forest, Oxford University Press (hardback edition,

Announced at

Andrzej Zychla, Teachers' Training College of English, University of
Zielona Gora, Poland.

[For another review of this book, see -- Eds.]

Lexicography and the OED, edited by Lynda Mugglestone, is a
comprehensive monograph, the first so in-depth and detailed, devoted
to the most significant achievement of the world lexicography: the
Oxford English Dictionary. The book consists of 12 contributions (two
of them written by the editor) in the form of chapters that cover a
wide range of topics: from historic OED readers and editors to much
more specific lexicographic or linguistic issues such as the treatment
of phonetics, morphology and definition in the dictionary.


1. Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest: The New English Dictionary,
L. Mugglestone - beginning with the famous quote by James Murray (part
of it constituting the title), the chapter discusses some of the
issues that made OED world famous: descriptivism, different approach
to word etymology, zeal and patriotism of its lexicographers striving
to compile a 'new dictionary worthy of the English language' and based
on 'modern scientific and historical principles'. The author also
mentions some problems: unexpected expansion of the project, problems
related to readers, slips and amending instructions.

2. Making the OED: Readers and Editors. A Critical Survey, E. Knowles
- this chapter focuses on OED readers, those excellent as well as
those 'not so good ones' and various problems related to the fact that
they worked so far away from the Murray's Scriptorium, unpaid and had
to be contacted largely in writing. Fragments of correspondence
between Murray and some of his most reliable readers (especially
Fitzedward Hall) are quoted and some insight into their personal lives
provided as they strove in their infirmity to accomplish their
task. The human being is shown as the weakest element in the project
as there appear friction between subeditors and the loss of readers
(either naturally, through death, or due to tension or conflict).

3. OED Sources, Ch. Brewer - OED was different from its predecessors
as it did not rely extensively on word lists or definitions taken from
earlier dictionaries. The chapter shows the evolution of the original
ideas as lexicographers found that it was impossible to include
everything and had to draw up some criteria that would legitimize word
inclusion in the dictionary. It is a breath-taking account of how
books for reading were chosen to be read (and re- read, in many cases)
for citations and how some readers seemed to be more efficient than
others and all the difficulties related to quantitative data and
establishing proportions even though it is now possible to search the
electronic version of OED in many ways.

4. Murray and his European Counterparts, N. Osselton - This chapter
puts OED into European perspective and attempts to compare it with its
great counterparts: the Deutsches W�rterbuch, the Dictionnaire de la
langue fran�aise and the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal. It puts
all the four dictionaries into chronological perspectives (providing
the dates of their onsets and completions and their approximate
size. The author suggests that OED is far the most consistent in its
layout throughout the many volumes, Grimm's dictionary most readable
(originally meant as a family reading). Each of the big dictionaries
is described individually and issues such as: sense-development,
pronunciation, synonymy, usage, archaism and neologism, collocation,
idiom touched upon.

5. Time and Meaning: Sense and Definition in the OED, P. Silva - This
part discusses the novel approach of OED, as it greatly rejected the
then popular 'etymological metaphysics' and developed its own defining
system based on sense development supported on logic and example
sentences. The author discusses influences of other dictionaries and
lexicographers on OED (namely Webster and Johnson, the former as a
definer rather than etymologist, though) and focuses on the complexity
of the defining process and filters that the definition had to go
through before being finally accepted as well as the defining
policies, some of them no longer considered good lexicographic

6. The Compass of Vocabulary, A. Curzan - This chapter discusses the
decision made by OED lexicographers as to what to include and not to
include in their theoretically comprehensive dictionary. The OED
compass covers Literary, Common and Colloquial, Scientific, Technical,
Slang and Dialectal (peripheral words) but is influenced by the
difficulty in deciding what is and what is not an English word. OED is
compared with two other dictionaries in order to find out how
systematic and successful it was in its approach. As including
peripheral words in any dictionary is 'unquestionably a step towards
their legitimization', OED by careful marking and labels seems to be
taking, in the author's own words, a step rather than a leap.

7. Words and Word-Formation: Morphology in OED, D. Kastovsky. This
chapter is a brief revision of basic morphological principles and
processes and their application in OED as well as acknowledgement of a
truly pioneering work done by its editors. OED, despite its
deficiencies, seems to have inspired modern studies of English
word-formation in the last 60 years.

8. OED and the Earlier History of English, E. Stanley. This chapter
reminds its readers of the beginnings of the dictionary, gives some
additional information on their editor's scholarly backgrounds as well
as a brief overview of the times in which the work was
accomplished. It states that some of the gaps in the dictionary were
due to limited availability of certain texts (e.g. Old English ones)
or the fact that some of the universities did not consider English as
worthy of academic interest. It suggests that the magnitude of the
work and the many years it took to complete led to its
inconsistencies, imperfections and omissions.

9. The Vocabulary of Science in the OED, M. R. Hoare, V. Salmon. This
chapter discusses the problems related to the inclusion of scientific
vocabulary in any general purpose dictionary and the amount of
'glossing' and labelling required (i.e. how much encyclopedic
information should entries include). It also reminds its readers of
the dramatic situation of the editors, bound by time, space and cost
constraints which led to the coverage of scientific vocabulary which
is at times tentative or antiquated but still, to Murray's credit, a
lot more than rudimentary.

10. Pronunciation in the OED, M. K. C. MacMahon. The pronunciation got
included in the dictionary almost by accident. The chapter discusses
important choices to be made, e.g. which accent to include, how to
deal with many pronunciations of the same word by the same speaker and
which transcription to follow. It also gives some insight into the
changes that will be included in OED3 (in progress), in which not only
the standard (RP) pronunciation will be included but also AE (the
notation will also be adjusted).

11. An Historian not a Critic: The Standard of Usage in the OED,
L. Mugglestone. This chapter gives a very interesting insight into the
Victorian bias that is, quite unconsciously reflected in the
definitions and labelling, some stereotypes that are there in OED and
the fact that even though the editors wanted to be as descriptive as
possible, they sometimes fell victim of their culture and society.

12. 'This Unique and Peerless Specimen': The Reputation of the OED,
R. W. Bailey. This chapter discusses the role of imperialism, profit
and philology in the making of the OED. English was (and is still)
considered the winner in the battle of language supremacy in the
world, Oxford became a trademark (even a byword for a 'dictionary'),
as successful worldwide as Webster in America and OED still serves as
a yardstick by which to measure other lexicographic work in the
English speaking world.

There are three appendices (more than 50 pages in length, altogether):

a) OED Sections and Parts - containing a chart listing complete list
of sections furnished with their date of publication and the
dictionary part in which they can be found.

b) OED Personalia - is a list of names of people who have either
created a part of the dictionary or contributed to it significantly,
supplied with short biographical notes on them; the list includes: the
most eager and prolific readers, OED editors, writers, scholars and
ordinary people.

c) The OED and the Public - including a chronological list of
publications on OED.

Finally, there are 3 pages of further reading and a 5-page index.


The book is a captivating account of an extraordinary achievement, an
endeavour that turned out to be almost impossible to and yet completed
even though it took many more years than originally expected.

As the books draws significantly on unpublished material (including
files obtained from the Bodleian Library and private material) it
makes a fascinating reading. I would recommend it to anyone interested
in the English language and lexicography - even though the individual
contributions are written by different people and on large scope of
topics it makes a fascinating reading. As it points many areas still
underexplored, I am sure it will constitute a starting point for much
more research that is still necessary to assess the true value of the
OED, the dictionary that has influenced lexicography so much.

I would recommend the book to all lexicographers, linguists and
everyone interested in the history of English and English
dictionaries. Even though some of the thoughts and quotes are repeated
throughout it(which is inevitable as there are some many contributions
by so many authors) it is a rich well of original material that is
otherwise almost impossible to access. Materials obtained from various
sources and the choice of topics covered make it a good buy for every
scholar and guarantee updated information of highest quality.


The reviewer works at the Teachers' Training College, University of
Zielona Gora. He defended his MA thesis (a critical evaluation of one
of the Polish bilingual dictionaries) in 1998. He is currently working
on his PhD dissertation (Defining strategies used by EFL teachers and
their possible implications for dictionary definitions). His interests
include: (meta)lexicography and applied linguistics (language teaching
methodology and translation).
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