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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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18th century
First stages of collection
Soon after the first set of reading lists for OED volunteers was drawn up, it was decided to assign the eighteenth-century period to American readers. The Proposal reported in 1859 that 'the whole of the 18th-century literature has been handed over to our American collaborators' (p. 6), to be organized by a subcommittee of which G. P. Marsh was to act as Secretary, and in May 1860 Herbert Coleridge explained to Trench that this period 'would have a less chance of finding as many readers in England' (Coleridge 1860: 72; the OED Online archive pages contain scanned images of both Coleridge’s letter to Trench and the appeal Marsh issued to his fellow countrymen).

Why did Coleridge feel that British readers would be uninterested in the eighteenth century? Many Victorians seem to have had a low view of the literature of this period, as instanced in remarks like those of Swinburne, who in his book on William Blake reminded his readers that his author lived in a time
when the very notion of poetry, as we now understand it, had totally died and decayed out of the minds of men; when we not only had no poetry, a thing which was bearable, but had verse in plenty; a thing which was not in the least bearable (Swinburne 1868: 8)
Swinburne went on to comment on some of Blake's early lines ('My lord was like a flower upon the brows / of lusty May') that they are 'Verses not to be despised, when one remembers that the boy who wrote them...was living in full eighteenth century' (p. 11).

Such disregard was not universal (Pope was much admired, for example), but was apparently sufficient for Coleridge to feel that the eighteenth century was better off in the hands of the Americans. (For recent discussion of Victorian views of eighteenth-century literature and language, see the essays in O'Gorman and Turner 2004.) But this turned out to be a misjudgement.

Murray emphasises the need for more eighteenth-century quotations
Twenty years later, when Murray became editor of the OED in 1879, he found that there was a serious deficiency in eighteenth-century quotation slips. In the Appeal he issued that year, he reported:
it is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed. The American scholars promised to get the eighteenth-century literature taken up in the United States, a promise which they appear not to have to any extent fulfilled, and we must now appeal to English readers to share the task, for nearly the whole of that century's books, with the exception of Burke's works, have still to be gone through.[1] Special attention must be paid to the dramatic literature of the early eighteenth and late seventeenth century, as in this will be found the earliest occurrence of much of our modern phraseology, which is now good and stately English, but was familiar or colloquial a century and a half ago. (Murray 1879a: 3)
The Appeal was accompanied by a 'List of books for which readers are wanted', on which a note on the section for the eighteenth century begins: 'the literature of this century has hardly been touched. Readers are safe with almost any eighteenth century book they can lay their hands on'. Forty-six works or authors, many literary, are named as 'books that ought to be read' (all this material can be read in facsimile on the archive section of the OED Online; go here).

Also in 1879, Murray issued a 'List of eighteenth century books and of American books, already read', for the use of a further set of American volunteers who were asked to submit their quotation slips to Prof. F. A. March of Pennsylvania.[2] This list can also be seen on the archive section of the OED Online (go here).

Comparing its items with the eighteenth-century sources eventually most quoted in the OED is illuminating (there are some discrepancies between this list and the one already issued in April 1879, of books 'for which readers are wanted'). Pope, Cowper, Johnson, Swift, Bailey (the dictionary writer), Defoe, Addison, Burke, Richardson, and Burns are the authors from this period most quoted in OED; of these only Pope, Defoe and Bailey are missing from Murray's list of books 'already read'. This indicates that the OED may still, in the event, have had to rely heavily on material gathered pre-1879 for its eighteenth-century quotations, despite the fact that this was meagre in comparison with that collected for other periods.

(Richardson is specified for Sir Charles Grandison alone, which means that Clarissa, quoted c. 2,800 times in the OED, must have been examined by a post-1879 reader, as were most of Swift's works. For more on Richardson go here.)

It is clear that Murray toiled heroically to fill the 'serious gaps'  he found in the quotation material he inherited from Furnivall. In 1880 he reported to the Philological Society that 'John Wycliffe Wilson, Esq., of Sheffield', had 'sent us a box of some hundred volumes of 18th c. literature', and that the deficiency in slips for that century had been 'to a great extent supplied' (Murray 1880: 124-5); in 1884, he described how 'for more than five-sixths of the words we have had to search out and find additional quotations in order to complete their history, and illustrate the senses; for every word we have had to make a general search to discover whether any earlier or later quotations, or quotations in other senses, exist (Murray 1884b: 515-16).

The result?
But the evidence we can now turn up from electronic searching of the OED suggests that, where the eighteenth century was concerned, he was less successful than he had hoped: our graph comparing quotation numbers by century clearly indicates disproportionately low documentation in the OED of this period of the language. 

A particularly interesting statistic, yielded by the electronic search tools on OED Online, is that a significant number of words (around 18,000), which are illustrated with quotations in OED from both the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, by contrast lack quotations from the eighteenth century.[3] This statistic excludes the many entries in OED, of which the verb report is a typical example, which have some quotations from the eighteenth century, but far fewer than those from the centuries on either side, as indicated in the table below:

Distribution across centuries of quotations for verb report in OED2 (all senses)[4]

On the face of it, it seems strange that usage of this word, plus that of many others with similar patterns of documentation in OED, should have ceased, or sharply dropped, for one hundred years or so, only to revive a century later. So we must now ask ourselves whether this dip in eighteenth-century quotations in the OED is due solely to the comparative shortage of slips collected by the first edition lexicographers, or whether it also tells us something about the nature of eighteenth-century usage of the language.

One way of testing this, not available of course to the original lexicographers, is to take a word with few or no eighteenth-century quotations in OED and look it up in a comprehensive online resource such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). As described in Brewer 2007a, this database yields many instances of the verb report that would have furnished excellent OED quotations, including a number from Pope's translation of Homer (much quoted elsewhere in OED). It is easy to repeat this experiment with other items, with the same result: and this indicates that the eighteenth-century 'dip' in OED was indeed due to the lexicographers' collecting methods rather than to some innate characteristic of language over this period.

The current revision of the OED, OED3, at first sight appears to be replicating the pattern of low eighteenth-century representation. However, closer analysis reveals that it is slowly beginning to redress the balance of quotations from this period, probably as a result of its ready access to online collections of eighteenth-century texts. Thus a word revised comparatively early on, noetical ('purely intellectual; of or relating to the intellect'), has three seventeenth-century, no eighteenth-century, one nineteenth-century, and three twentieth-century quotations. Searching on ECCO turns up 11 quotable eighteenth-century examples (six from the same text).[5] But many additional eighteenth-century quotations have been found for words revised more recently, such as outsparkle (v.), outspeak, and others.

See discussion at OED3 1500-1899 and footnote 3 below.

For further analysis see Brewer 2006; a fuller account will appear in Brewer 2007a. For OED's most quoted authors from this period, see Initial results: 18c sources

[1] This remark seems to be the ultimate source of Schäfer's statement (Schäfer 1980: 53) that 'because of a breakdown in organization', the eighteenth-century slips assigned to American readers 'never reached Murray's scriptorium'. Schäfer's implication is that the slips had been lost; rather it appears that they had never been written in the first place. (American readers, particularly university academics, were subsequently enormously productive of slips, as Murray gratefully acknowledged; Murray 1880: 123-4.)
[2] March (1825-1911) was 'professor of English Language and Comparative Philology at Lafayette College (the first chair of its kind in the United States), from 1857'. He published a grammar of Anglo-Saxon in 1870 and also worked (with Israel Funk) on the Standard Dictionary of 1895. (Information from Gilliver 2000: 242.)
[3] On the Advanced search page for OED2, search for 'Entries' containing ('1800-1899' in 'quotation date') AND ('1600-1699' in 'quotation date') AND NOT ('1700-1799' in 'quotation date'). Repeating the search on OED Online gives a total of 18,350 entries (search made 4 July 2006; 60 quotations fewer than the identical search made in January 2006, which yielded a result of 18,410 entries, indicating that OED3 is now including more quotations from the eighteenth century).
[4] The table includes the 13 quotations (12 twentieth-century and one nineteenth-century) added by Burchfield in vol. 3 of his Supplement (1982; covering the alphabet range o-scz). As Burchfield did not in general set out to provide recent quotations for senses already well illustrated with late-nineteenth-century quotations, the total for the twentieth century is disproportionately low; see further Brewer 2004: 22-4.
[5] Searching ECCO in this way requires caution. Many hits occur in dictionaries, in multiple copies of the same text, or in editions of works originally published before the eighteenth century (and therefore not valid examples of eighteenth-century usage); moreover the reliability of the searches varies according to the legibility of the facsimiles with respect to the word searched for. Thus of the 15 hits for 'noetical' (search made 6 July 2006), seven turned up the word 'poetical' instead.
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