May 17, 2022

Report: “How the Oxford English Dictionary was Brought to Life in a Rustic Scriptorium”

From ABC (Australia):

Just to work from “A” to “ant” took the original Oxford English Dictionary team around 10 years.

They thought they’d reach “Z” in that time — but gathering definitions for hundreds of thousands of words was a mammoth task, especially in the 1870s without the help of technology.

“It is akin to mapping the human genome. It was that big an enterprise,” says author Pip Williams, who has researched the dictionary’s history.

And it ended up taking another six decades to complete.


Williams researched the original dictionary for her book, The Dictionary of Lost Words.

She was curious about what words were left out, given one specific criterion for entry.

“If a word wasn’t written down, it never had a chance of being in the dictionary,” she explains.

“How many situations, particularly pre-20th century, would there have been where people were using language in a very specific way, in a very specific situation — like the birthing room, or the laundry, or the scullery, or the coal mine?

“And those words, because they’re not written down, because the people who use them are illiterate very often, and because there’s nobody listening to them or wanting to record their experience, those words are lost to history, because they’re lost to the dictionary.”

She says this fact reveals a serious fallibility.

“We do not question dictionaries,” Williams says.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.