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Review of  Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest

Reviewer: Simon Horobin
Book Title: Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest
Book Author: Lynda Mugglestone
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Lexicography
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 13.2171

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Mugglestone, Lynda, ed. (2002)
Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest.
Oxford University Press, 304pp, Paperback ISBN 0-19-925195-9 $29.95.
Oxford Studies in Lexicography and Lexicology (Hardback ed., 2000).

The hardback edition was announced in

Simon Horobin, University of Glasgow

Lexicography and the OED is a collection of papers which examine the
unique contribution to lexicography provided by the first edition of
the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The authors adopt a range of
linguistic approaches and frequently draw upon unpublished materials
in the archives of Oxford University Press and the Murray papers.

In the opening chapter Lynda Mugglestone provides an introduction to
the volume by considering the achievement of the OED within its
historical context. Mugglestone stresses the novelty of the
historical approach adopted by Murray and the earliest editors and
philologists associated with the Dictionary, who set out to 'show more
clearly and fully than has hitherto been done, or even attempted, the
development of the sense or various senses of each word from its
etymology and from each other'. This introduction provides a
fascinating survey of the kinds of problems Murray and his associates
were faced with on a daily basis, including Murray's frustrating
correspondence with Victorian poets who were generally vague and
unhelpful in response to requests for definitions of words which
appeared in their works, leading Murray to comment: 'One cannot take
the language of poets too seriously'. While this opening chapter
offers many interesting glimpses into the making of the Dictionary it
is necessarily selective and for more detailed treatment interested
readers are encouraged to read K.M. Elisabeth Murray's brilliant
(1977) biography of Murray.

The following 11 chapters cover a range of aspects of the OED,
including a critical survey by Elizabeth Knowles of the numerous
readers who contributed to the Dictionary's ambitious reading
programme, the majority of which were unpaid volunteers. As well as
the volunteer readers, the Dictionary drew on a large team of editors
and subeditors whose Herculean task was to classify the vast
quantities of slips submitted by the readers. Despite the importance
of their work for the Dictionary project as a whole, these subeditors
were also frequently volunteers working alone and following a series
of written guidelines which demanded considerable editorial
sophistication. For instance subeditors identified the dominant
spelling of a word, divided its illustrative quotations into parts of
speech, arranged them into chronological order and provided
provisional semantic classifications and definitions. As well as
shedding further light on the work of these subeditors, this volume
provides a select list of individuals involved in the production of
OED, with brief bibliographical details, as an appendix.

Another important contribution is Charlotte Brewer's essay on 'OED
Sources' which demonstrates how the OED on CD- ROM may be used to
produce statistics concerning the number of quotations derived from
individual works, authors or periods. Such figures allow an insight
into the privileging of particular periods or authors and highlight
areas where the OED coverage is patchy. Such figures demonstrate the
prominence quotations from canonical literary authors played in the
making of the Dictionary, and the comparatively slight use made of
non- literary works, such as scientific texts. However Brewer's
figures also show that the privileging of major literary authors can
be overstated. For instance it is often claimed that for the Middle
English period Chaucer's works were plundered for quotations to a much
greater extent than other texts, and this has led to overstated claims
concerning Chaucer's contribution to English vocabulary (see Mersand
1937 and Cannon 1998). However while Chaucer's works did yield a
massive 11,902 quotations, other Middle English texts, such as the
anonymous Cursor Mundi and the Wycliffite translation of the Bible
provided greater numbers: 12,772 and 11,971 quotations respectively.
As Brewer rightly points out, studies of this kind tell us more about
lexicographical practice than the importance of such authors for the
development of the language.

The treatment of Early English sources is taken up by Eric Stanley in
'OED and the Earlier History of English', which surveys the different
policies adopted by the OED editors in their use of Old, Middle and
Early Modern English materials. Stanley assesses the decision to
include only Old English vocabulary which survived after 1150, arguing
that the inclusion of words obsolete by this date would have increased
the task by only 10% rather than by the 'immense' number of words
estimated by Murray. The idea of producing a dictionary on historical
principles, arranging citations and senses by date, was not the OED's
innovation but was in fact first attempted by Charles Richardson in
his A New Dictionary of the English Language, Combining Explanation
with Etymology (1836-7), although Richardson's etymologies were often
highly dubious. Stanley considers the availability of Old and Middle
English texts to the OED editors and concludes that in most cases the
editors performed a very thorough analysis considering the limited
tools available. However the treatment of Old and Middle English
materials is not consistent and frequently varies according to editor,
with Bradley appearing as the most accomplished etymologist. Stanley
also considers the question of the privileging of certain major
literary authors, particularly Shakespeare for the Early Modern
English period, over more minor contemporaries such as Elyot, Holland
and Nashe. He agrees with Brewer's conclusions that to use the OED to
determine a particular author's contribution to the English language
is to use the dictionary inappropriately, to ask questions of it which
it was not designed to answer. Stanley also interestingly stresses
the subjectivity and taste that govern the inclusion and exclusion of
certain sources, accepting that the preference of Shakespeare over
minor writers may be justified on grounds of literary taste, and that
he would give 'a wilderness of words from Nashe, Holland or Felltham
for guidance on one crux in Shakespeare' (p. 147).

Questions of inclusion and taste and considered by Lynda Mugglestone
in 'The Standard of Usage in the OED' which looks at attitudes towards
variation and standardisation. By including variant pronunciations
and spellings and any word that appears in the written record, Murray
attempted to remain non-prescriptive in his approach: 'I am not a
judge of the language-only its historian'. This attitude incurred a
good deal of criticism, particularly for the inclusion of words which
reviewers considered errors, slang, or even contemptible
barbarisms. The use of a dictionary as a didactic text is to some
extent inevitable and Murray's desire to avoid prescriptivism was
undermined by the public who often regarded it as providing a
linguistic norm. Murray himself came to recognise this: 'I have to
consider responsibilities...if I give a preference to Dissyllable
[rather than disyllable] multitudes will follow the standard'
(p. 196). Despite the editor's claim to descriptive impartiality,
prescriptive attitudes may be found in the work of the readers and
subeditors who were often guided in their work by notions of correct
and incorrect usage. Such condemnatory attitudes sometimes
infiltrated the entry in OED itself as in the use of 'allude' in the
sense 'to refer' (OED sense 5) which is supplemented by the comment
'Often used ignorantly as = refer to'. Mugglestone demonstrates how
the use of a wealth of labels designed to convey stylistic status and
register, such as 'affected', 'pedantic', 'vulgar', 'ludicrous',
'illiterate', served to undermine the dictionary's claim to
descriptive impartiality. While such instances need to be seen within
the wider context of the dictionary's admirable stance against
proscription, these examples demonstrate how notions of 'correct
usage' inevitably become attached to the usage described by the OED.

It is not possible in a short review to do justice to the wealth of
detailed insights and range of topics offered by this volume; others
not discussed here examine Murray and his European context, and the
treatment of morphology, pronunciation and scientific vocabulary. In
sum this volume provides an excellent scholarly assessment of the
contribution of the OED and suggests many potentially fruitful areas
for further research. One minor complaint concerns a degree of
overlap across some of the contributions, concerning references to
Murray's life or the practice of earlier Dictionary editors,
especially Johnson, which, while perhaps inevitable, might have been
removed by judicious editing.


Cannon, Christopher (1998) The Making of Chaucer's English: A Study of
Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mersand, Joseph (1937) Chaucer's Romance Vocabulary. Brooklyn: Comet

Murray, K. M. Elisabeth (1977) Caught in the Web of Words: James
Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. Yale: Yale University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Simon Horobin has research interests in Middle English language and literature, the history of English, manuscript studies and humanities computing.