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Home arrow Role of quotations arrow Period coverage arrow Early Modern
Early Modern
As illustrated by our graph of OED quotations 1500-1899, some of the decades in the Early Modern English periods were heavily quoted, but others were less so. Documentation around 1575 to 1625 is dominated by the intensive recording of Shakespeare's works (c. 33,300 quotations), for which the lexicographers were able to use concordances and other editorial aids such as glossaries. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this apparently biassed excerpting has the effect of over-representing the lexical productivity of this period in English, as a number of complex factors are involved. However, a leading investigator of Early Modern English lexis has stated that 'The growth spurt in the English vocabulary centred on 1600 is almost certainly an artefact of the method used by the OED rather than a historical fact' (Bailey 1985: 210 n. 6).

From early on the period proved a popular one with readers: the first edition of Murray's Appeal noted in 1879 that 'the later sixteenth-century literature is fairly done' (by contrast, 'the seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory'). But despite the wealth of quotations printed in the OED for these years, the lexicographers themselves believed that their treatment of the period was insufficient. In 1919, Craigie wrote (referring to 1500-1675):
This is one of the most marvellous periods of the language, and...in the pages of the Society's dictionary [i.e. OED]...it bulks very largely indeed, yet by no means more than it deserves. Its riches are almost inexhaustible, and we are almost daily compelled to set aside large quantities of interesting material for which we can find no space in our columns. Moreover, abundant as our material is, it constantly fails to clear up some obscure phrase or allusion, and many well-known passages in the writers of that time still await a satisfactory solution. The English of these two centuries can only be dealt with in an adequate manner when it has been made the subject of special study and has its own dictionary. (Craigie 1919: 8)
After the completion of the first edition of OED in 1928, the University of Michigan undertook to realize part of Craigie's vision for subsequent period dictionaries, and its researchers received slips for both this and the Middle English period from Oxford (sent over by an extraordinarily laborious process).[1] To begin with, the plan for a dictionary of Early Modern English looked much more viable than that for a dictionary of Middle English. Only the latter received adequate funding and came to fruition, however, and as described on the previous page the last instalment was published in 2001.

Although the Early Modern English project never issued in a dictionary, it was enthusiastically pursued by the lexicographer and linguist Charles C. Fries. Michigan received about 1.5 million slips from Oxford, and these formed the basis of further work by R. W. Bailey (noted below) and others. Virtually twice the original number of slips were returned to Oxford in 1997 for use in the current OED3 revision (information supplied by R. W. Bailey; for an account of Fries and the EMED project see Bailey 1985).

Subsequent lexical scholarship
Significant work emending and expanding OED coverage 1475-1700 has been produced by R. W. Bailey, who worked with Fries to supplement the material dispatched to Michigan in the late 1920s by Oxford University Press:

  • a list of c. 4,400 citations of words and senses (taken from articles in Notes and Queries and other printed sources) in the Early Modern English period which were untreated by OED1 (Bailey 1978)
  • (completed 1996) an 'online database of citations collected for the modal verbs and certain other English words for the Early Modern English Dictionary', available at http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/memem/index.html [accessed 16 March 2006] 

Other research on the lexis of this period indicates that OED's documentation of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century words and senses can be significantly improved on:
  • Jurgen Schäfer's Early Modern English Lexicography (1989) examines around 130 sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century monolingual printed glossaries, some 90 of which were also sources for OED quotations and/or listed in the OED bibliography, and demonstrates that OED recorded their words and senses partially and inconsistently: Schäfer lists c. 18,400 lemmas, of which c. 3,850 - a fifth or so - were omitted by OED. These words cannot be dismissed as 'dictionary words' unsuitable for treatment by OED, partly because OED cites many dictionary words from other sources (and also, occasionally, from these sources), but mostly because many of the 'hard words' in these early glossaries were taken from examples of real usage, not from other dictionaries
  • R. W. McConchie's Lexicography and Physicke: The Record of Sixteenth-Century English Medical Terminology (1997) investigates OED's treatment of sixteenth-century medical words and senses, and finds many words in contemporary medical works which antedate OED documentation (even though some of these works, like some of those in Schäfer's study, were read by OED editors or volunteers)
  • Ian Lancashire's Lexicons of Early Modern English similarly supplements OED coverage of this period and reveals that language commentary written by contemporary lexicographers contains a wealth of hitherto untapped material. This resource, published by the University of Toronto Press and the University of Toronto Library, searches and displays a database of 450,000 word-entries from just under 150 monolingual English dictionaries, bilingual lexicons, technical vocabularies, and other encyclopedic-lexical works dated 1480-1702. See also Lancashire 2003 and 2006.

All these works substantiate Craigie's view that, despite receiving so much attention, the Early Modern English lexicon is insufficiently represented in OED. They also illustrate two further significant points, both of which should be taken into account by both literary and linguistic scholars when making inferences about the development of the English language from evidence found in OED:
  1. the view of the English lexicon as 'an artefact whose creation was largely in the hands of literary authors' (McConchie 1997: 9-10) - a view reflected and in turn fostered by the OED's favouring of literary sources – is not one that is justified by independent study of sources neglected by OED1
  2. OED1's inspection of sources was (for entirely understandable reasons) often inconsistent and unreliable. In McConchie's words: 'sources already scrutinized, and even relatively thoroughly excerpted, may nevertheless be productive of much more material' (p. 155); 'the fact of a book's having already been read is simply no guide to what useful data might still be found in it, unless it can be shown to have been exhaustively excerpted as in the case of Shakespeare' (pp. 177-8).
OED3's plans for treating this period in the future
In 1999, OED3 lexicographer Philip Durkin wrote that 'the exhaustive documentation of the English of this period...will have to remain as an objective for future editions of OED or for a revived project along the lines of EMED' (Durkin 1999: 33n). Referring to Schäfer's 'eloquent case for the desirability' of such documentation, he went on to say that 'OED3 will endeavour to make as full use of [Bailey's Michigan EMED] materials as possible in supplementing documentation for existing entries and in identifying the most significant new items for addition, with particular attention being given to those items which cast significant new light on existing items in OED.'  See further our pages on OED3 1500-1899 and OED3 1500-1599.

[1] Bailey 1985: 201, n. 4, records Agnes Carswell Fries's description of the work involved in packing up the OED slips: 'During 1928 we lived in Oxford and worked with a team of about ten people at tables in the Old Ashmolean building, emptying the boxes of slips which were brought to us there and sorting out, one by one, those slips which had to do with the period 1475 to 1700. It was a monotonous job. At the end of each week Charles [Fries, her husband] piled all the materials into the trunk of our car and took them home to our room on the third floor at number 2 Wellington Square. On Sunday he spent most of the day carefully wrapping them in strong waterproof paper and tying them in 22 pound bundles, sealed with red wax into which he pressed the seal of the University of Michigan. On Monday morning we took them to the post office. The post office would not accept more than 22 pounds for parcel post. Two long summers were spent that way.'
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