April 19, 2018

Happy Birthday, OED!

By Mirela Roncevic

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This has been a busy year for the folks at Oxford University Press (OUP), not only because the publisher’s online resources continue to multiply in size and substance (including, among others, the recent expansion of Oxford Language Dictionaries Online) but also because OUP’s crown jewel—the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—is celebrating its 80th anniversary. To commemorate the milestone, OUP launched a series of private and public events in the United States and abroad, including upcoming panel discussions at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge (November 13, 6 p.m.), as well as at the Philadelphia Free Library (November 18, 7:30 p.m.), featuring best-selling author Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary), Ammon Shea (Reading the OED), and editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary Jesse Sheidlower.

The highlight was a two-day celebration in Oxford, England this past October, drawing media from both sides of the Atlantic (including LJ; see “My 48 Hours in Oxford,” Reference editor Mirela Roncevic’s take on the Oxford experience, in the December issue) and focusing on current practices and future possibilities in dictionary making. OUP opened its doors to the press on Monday, October 13 and again on Tuesday, October 14, inviting journalists on tours of the OUP Museum as well as the OED offices, the latter including workshops with members of the editorial team. The closing public discussion at the Bodleian Library (one of nearly 40 libraries within the integrated structure of Oxford University Library Services), saw authors Winchester and Shea, as well as OED’s chief editor, John Simpson (see Q&A ) reflect upon the past, present, and future of the historical dictionary.

Casper Grathwohl, publisher of Oxford Reference, took the opportunity to discuss some of the key challenges facing dictionary publishing, including globalization, the Internet, and other related technological advances. “The world is changing fast and the language is no exception,” he noted. “How we store, edit, and use dictionary data sets has been transformed. We now have the ability to track and dissect real language on an unprecedented scale. This transparency is having a revolutionary effect on the accuracy and relevancy of our dictionary work.”

In the words of Chief Editor Simpson, the OED continues to be a work-in-progress, with more than 75 dictionary staff members and hundreds of freelance lexicographers and editors contributing to the its ever-growing corpus of entries. What was first published in 1928 in ten volumes has grown over the decades and seen numerous transformations, including four volumes of supplements, published between 1972 and 1986, the publication of the 20-volume second edition in 1989, the CD-ROM version in 1992, and, finally, the launch of the first online edition in 2000, which continues to be expanded and revised.
[For more on the OED, see the interview with publisher Casper Grathwohl]


  • OUP published its first book (The Apostles’ Creed) in the U.K. 14 years before Columbus discovered America (1478)
  • OUP is larger than all the other university presses combined (measured on revenues), with offices in 50 countries, 5000 employees, and 6000 books published annually
  • The work on the OED began in 1857 and took 70 years to complete before the first edition was published in 1928
  • J.R.R. Tolkien worked on OED’s words near the beginning of the letter W in 1919 and 1920

View an album of related pix here.