Murray's filing system (OUP Museum)
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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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The notion that the OED was, or should be, a guardian of the nation's language and a treasure-house of its great writers was early established and proved extremely difficult to resist. The main editor of OED1, James Murray, had to struggle hard against pressure, exerted at various different times and from various different quarters, to confine dictionary sources to 'great writers'. When the Oxford University Press Delegates sent Murray a list of 'Suggestions' for the dictionary in 1883, including the request that he take quotations so far as possible from such writers, he scribbled crossly over the paper (now preserved in the Bodleian Library, Box 5, as yet uncatalogued), 'Give us the quotations from great writers: "O how happy we shall be!" ' (see also K. M. E. Murray 1977: 221ff.).

It seems clear that Murray welcomed quotations from such sources when they were readily available: the problem was that time was limited and the lexicographers had therefore to use the quotations which were to hand, even if these came from newspapers (which Murray, like his successors, thought excellent sources of usage – though he was much criticised for quoting them).

As can be seen by glancing through any page of the Dictionary, however, literary quotations play a substantial role in furnishing the evidence for a word's progress from 'cradle to grave', and thus enabling 'every word...to tell its own story' (as described by the first editor Herbert Coleridge, following Passow). The reading lists and appeals sent out by the editors at various stages in the compilation of the first edition are dominated by literary works, and no doubt this reflected the reading preferences of the volunteers on whose labour the OED1 relied (see further Brewer 2000; OED's most quoted sources; Literature and the nation, and Literary issues: The canon).

The dominance of literary sources in the OED was additonally acknowledged by the lexicographers themselves when they explained that 'all the great English writers of all ages' were the first port of call for the OED's quotations (Murray 1928, vol X, p. v), and referred to the 1933 Bibliography of quotation sources as a 'guide to English literature' (Murray 1933, Preface).
Last Updated ( Friday, 16 January 2009 )
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