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Home arrow Role of quotations arrow Period coverage arrow 19th century
19th century
The first edition of the OED contained more quotations for the nineteenth than for any other century, as is clearly indicated by the pie chart below.

OED2 total quotations 1500-1899

OED2 total quotations

The most obvious reason for this distribution of quotations is that the vocabulary expanded 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. While some words from earlier periods had fallen out of use, more continued to be used and still more were coined, which meant that the overall total continued to increase. Murray aimed to illustrate every word with at least one quotation per century,[1] so more words in currency in any period means more OED quotations for that century.

There are two other possible reasons for the abundance of nineteenth-century quotations in OED, both of which have more to do with the circumstances of compiling the Dictionary than with the innate characteristics of the English language.
  1. First, this was the period most familiar to the lexicographers. They and their readers would be less likely to omit vocabulary eligible for inclusion, and more like to identify nuances and varying senses of existing words.
  2. Secondly - owing perhaps to the large number of contemporary quotations supplied by readers, who were naturally more exposed to written texts from this period of English than from any other - the lexicographers may have chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to exceed the normal quota of one quotation per century for each identified sense of a word. It is not possible to test this second possibility one way or another, since the electronic search facilities on OED do not permit one to analyse entries to this degree of detail. Nevertheless, serendipitous investigation certainly indicates that many entries list more quotations per sense for the nineteenth century than for previous centuries.
For an outline indication of OED3's collection of nineteenth-century quotations see our page on OED3 1500-1899 in the Initial results section. What follows on this page is an account of the first edition's progress on amassing quotations for this period.

Up to 1879
The evidence here is deficient, given the uncertain progress of the Dictionary in its early days (see Early progress). The Philological Society's Proposal had specified a list of nineteenth-century writers (mainly literary) as especially significant likely sources, but their eventual representation in the OED was variable (see graph). The first edition of Murray's Appeal of 1879 (the date he was appointed to the job of Editor) briefly summarized the state of collection of nineteenth-century quotations at that date, which seems to have been good in parts:
The nineteenth century books, being within the reach of every one, have been read widely; but a large number remain unrepresented, not only of those published during the last ten years, while the Dictionary has been in abeyance, but also of earlier date. (Murray 1879a: 3)
Over the page, Murray wrote:
Any one can help, especially with modern books; thus from these, Dr Murray's own pupils have supplied him with 5000 good quotations during the past month.
Murray's Appeal also included a 'List of books for which readers are wanted', grouped by century, which was adjusted in the two later editions (1879 and 1880) as readers offered their services.

After 1879
The take-up rate for the nineteenth-century works seems to have been the best for any of the periods, judging by the rate of substitution of works between the three successive editions of the Appeal. This is not surprising, given that - as we have seen Murray acknowledge - readers would have better access to more recent than to earlier works (and might well prefer to read them too). Identifying words eligible for inclusion in the Dictionary would also have seemed a simpler task with near-contemporary works, requiring less specialized knowledge.

In all editions of the Appeal, the list for the nineteenth-century section is the longest, reflecting the eventual proportion of quotations devoted to this period. In the first edition, Murray names one hundred works or authors and notes that 'more of this is done than of the eighteenth century, but much remains to do...slips from any current book, review, or other work are acceptable'. This mention of reviews significantly directs readers towards contemporary periodical literature, which was to receive extensive treatment in OED (see Willinsky 1994: 118-27); the direction is repeated in a note to readers at the end of the third edition which particularly asks for new words from 'contemporary magazines, reviews, literary and scientific journals', suggesting that Murray regarded such literature as the best source for neologisms (see further Newspapers [*under construction]).

Special importance of science
As with previous centuries, the lists are dominated by literary works, with theological, historical, and philosophical ones close behind. But there is also a small number of completely different titles: John Tyndall's Alpine Glaciers (1860), Lyell's 'Geological Works', the works of Faraday and Darwin, and Grove's Correlation of Physical Forces (1874).

This looks as if it indicates a wish on Murray's part to widen the range of the recorded lexicon. Tyndall's various works were eventually to yield c. 2,400 quotations, a substantial total, of which the two-volume Alpine Glaciers accounted for around 1,580.[2] Many of the words cited from this writer are not specifically scientific or otherwise technical. Darwin's works, by contrast, yielded 1,623 quotations, Lyell's 1,165, Faraday's 446, and the volume by W. R. Grove 177; the words quoted from the works of these four writers appear to include a much higher proportion of technical terms.[3]
Why should Murray have specially solicited scientific vocabulary for the nineteenth as opposed to earlier centuries (as these 1879 lists suggest)?[4] Possible answers are:

  • scientific progress and scientific discoveries had penetrated general culture (and hence language) far more than in previous generations[5]
  • this recognition was shared by the educated public and more especially by the OED readers
  • nineteenth-century scientific works were more available to the readers than those from earlier periods. (Darwin, Lyell, Faraday and Grove reappear on each of the two subsequent editions of the Appeal's list of authors to be read, suggesting that their works were not enthusiastically snatched up by readers.)

For more on Murray's treatment of scientific language see Hoare and Salmon 2000 and Mugglestone 2005: chapter 5; for more on the Appeal lists and OED sources generally see Brewer 2000.

By 1880, one year after the Appeal had been issued, Murray reported that the deficiency in slips for 'the literature of the present' had been 'to a great extent supplied' (Murray 1880: 125). But this confidence in the adequate representation of contemporary sources had disappeared by 1892 when Murray called for 'Dr. Furnivall, or some other competent person, [to] draw up from Mudie's catalogue or other source, a list of works published since 1875' to enable them to represent literature of last quarter of the nineteenth century (Murray 1892: 275).[6] Murray must have been uncomfortably aware that he was working too slowly to keep up with the language, and that it was hard to record contemporary English satisfactorily when it was changing every day. It is not surprising that quotations for the years at the end of the nineteenth century fall off sharply - and that the decline continues even more markedly into the beginning of the twentieth century (see 20th century). This is one of the reasons why the lexicographers and publishers recognized that they had to begin work on a Supplement almost straightaway.

Results: individual authors
Many of the major authors of the nineteenth century are represented in high numbers.

Total quotations in OED2 by major nineteenth-century authors

Top nineteenth-century authors

Scott, Tennyson and Dickens are among the most-quoted sources for the OED overall (see Top sources), another indication of the special treatment given the nineteenth century. The nature of the vocabulary recorded from these authors is a topic ripe for study: are they for run-of-mill usages (as seems to be the case with many of the Dickens quotations) or for eccentric ones (as seems to be the case with a significant proportion of the Scott quotations) - or for a mixture, and how does this mixture vary between the authors? Do such variations tell us about the characteristics of a particular writer, or about the preferences of the OED readers and lexicographers?

For more on Scott go here.

's collection of nineteenth-century material
Perhaps surprisingly, the revision of the OED currently underway continues to amass many more quotations for this century than for its predecessors: see our page on OED3's practice to date at OED3 1500-1899. While the revision is in general greatly expanding its citations of non-canonical literary sources (as described at OED3 quotation sources) it is still recording many new quotations from hitherto well-covered authors. For example, over the alphabet range M-Pomak (i.e. the range revised by OED3 between March 2000 and September 2006), Dickens is quoted c. 1,460 times in OED3, up from c. 1,010 times in the equivalent stretch of OED2 (an increase of 45%).

[1] In the 'General Explanations' (p. xxii) Murray stated that the quotations 'are arranged chronologically, so as to give about one for each century, though various considerations often render a larger number necessary' (reproduced, with some tiny changes, on the archive section of OED Online). This principle had been established at least as early as 1896 (as recorded on page 8 of a document prepared for the OUP Delegates entitled 'New English Dictionary. Correspondence and minutes (April 24 1896)' (OED/B/2/2/1)).
[2] Professor John Tyndall (1820-1893) was an eminent physicist and became a friend of Carlyle in the latter's old age; see his entry in ODNB [subscription required].
[3] Though all four are cited for non-technical vocabulary also - often supported by very well chosen quotations; cf. that of Darwin s.v. struggle. Sixty-one of Darwin's total quotations are from his joint publication (1880) of Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, many of which are for technical words.
[4] A note at the end of the list, hence applying apparently to all periods, welcomes 'offers to read any other book...especially early treatises on any of the sciences'. Although this was repeated in the second and third editions of the Appeal, the number of scientific works listed for the earlier periods is small.
[5] e.g. Trench repeatedly used geological imagery: see Fossil poetry.
[6] 'Mudie's catalogue' was the list of items available to borrow from the extraordinarily popular and influential circulating library founded by Charles Edward Mudie (1818–1890).
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