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Review of  Lexicography and the OED

Reviewer: Andrzej Zychla
Book Title: Lexicography and the OED
Book Author: Lynda Mugglestone
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Lexicography
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.2627

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Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2003 00:22:33 +0200
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, 2000).

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
Wörterbuch, the Dictionnaire de la langue française 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 practice.

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

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

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,
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
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
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


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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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