This Day in History - 1884

On this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), widely regarded as the most accurate and comprehensive dictionary of the English language, is published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the history, meaning, and pronunciation of more than half a million words, past and present.

Plans for the dictionary got underway in 1857 when members of London’s Philological Society, who believed there were no error-free, up-to-date English dictionaries available, chose to produce one that would encompass all vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon period (1150 A.D.) to the present. Conceived of as a four-volume, 6,400-page work, it was estimated the project would take 10 years to complete. But the 125th and final fascicle wasn't published until April 1928. It boasted 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes and was published under the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

Unlike most English dictionaries, which only list present-day common definitions, the OED provides a detailed chronological history for every word and phrase, citing quotations from a wide array of sources, including classic literature and cookbooks. The OED is renowned for its lengthy cross-references and etymologies. The verb “set” is the OED’s longest entry, at roughly 60,000 words and specifying over 400 uses. A supplement that included new entries and revisions was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary.

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