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Home arrow Role of quotations arrow Period coverage arrow 19th century
20th century
OED's coverage of twentieth-century vocabulary is a mixed bag. In order to put this in context, the graph below includes the last three decades of the nineteenth century. After climbing to a peak of c.120,000 quotations for the decade 1880-1889, numbers fell steeply to 30,000 (mid-eighteenth-century levels!) for 1910-1919, picking up slightly over the 1920s and 1930s. (Compare our graph for quotations 1500-1899.)

OED2 quotations 1870-1989

OED2 quotations 1870-1989

As we have seen, five million quotations had been collected by 1901, and the lexicographers were presumably putting the bulk of their energy into analysing their existing supplies rather than searching out more. (Many years later, Craigie's successor at DOST, A. J. Aitken, suggested that analysing quotations took three times as long as collecting them; Aitken 1971: 9.)

This explains the downward slide in numbers up to 1920 or so. The 1933 Supplement, which concentrated on recent vocabulary, began to compensate for the drop in quotations; its material was almost wholly included in Burchfield's Supplement of 1972-86. This latter work repeated in miniature the pattern of quotation gathering for OED1: far more quotations for the years nearest the period of publication.

It is striking nevertheless that Burchfield did not bring the number of twentieth-century quotations up to the level of those for the nineteenth - despite the fact that the most obvious reason for the large number of nineteenth-century quotations in the OED (namely, the expansion of vocabulary between 1150 and the nineteenth century, so that there were more words in circulation over the period 1800-1899 than at any point in the past) would apply with even more force to the twentieth century.

The explanation for this is straightforward. Burchfield's principal aim had been to identify and record new words or senses since 1928, not to update the quotation record for words already treated in OED1 (despite the fact that many, presumably most, of these words were still current twentieth-century English). When Burchfield's Supplement was merged with OED1 to create OED2 - and the database from which the graph above is derived - the record for twentieth-century vocabulary became incongruous, since many thousands of current words were not supported with quotations beyond 1880 or so. The consequence is that OED2's attestation and treatment of words already in existence by the time of OED1, and still current in the 1980s - i.e. the bulk of the English lexicon - is most unsatisfactory.

So it is not surprising that the current revision of the Dictionary, OED3, has enormously increased quotations for this period. Entry after entry in the portion of the alphabet range so far revised displays new quotations from twentieth-century (and indeed twenty-first-century) sources, repairing the gaps left in documentation for the last 100-odd years. Taking the range M-monnisher as a sample, and using OED Online's search mechanism, we can calculate that, whereas Burchfield supplied 18,203 quotations for this section of the alphabet, the new revisers have to date supplied 37,873. In other words, OED3 has doubled the number of quotations from recent sources.[1]

Go to next pages on Reading and readers.

[1] The 'M' fascicles for OED1 were published in 1904-1908, and Burchfield's Supplement volume covering words beginning with 'M' was published in 1976, so any OED2 quotations for words over the range M-monnisher between 1908 and 1976 must have been inserted by Burchfield (barring a few possibly added by the OED2 compilers; we have disregarded these as numerically insignificant). On OED2's 'Advanced search' page, under 'Quotations', we searched (25 November 2006) for the date range 1909-1976, and counted the number of quotations for the range M-monnisher, to get the number of quotations inserted by Burchfield. Repeating this search on OED3 yielded the total number of quotations over these dates in OED3.
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