Defining Words

After sorting the individual slips, the editors had to find the different meanings of the words on the slips. Additionally, they had to find out how the usage might have changed through time. Thereto, they had to check and recheck all original sources and dates to ensure that no mistakes were made. In this multi-layered process the next step was to pin the slips of each category together and attach a first attempt of definition to them. James Murray added the different etymologies, the alternate spellings and the pronunciation of each word. Subsequently, Murray’s task was to write the varied definitions. This forms the most crucial work for an editor of a dictionary. In order to define a word it is necessary that all words used in the definition appear somewhere in the dictionary. Additionally, the definition must provide the readers solely with information what the word is about and not what it is not about. (Winchester, p.116-117)
To see how difficult the writing of definitions can be, a good example is the word 'set'. The sub-editor who sorted the slips of 'set' by its' meanings and tried to arrange them needed 40 hours. In total he made 134 divisions, meaning and phrase divisions. To finish the entry 'set' it took another 40 days. The entry takes more than 18 pages in the Dictionary and has 154 main divisions.
In April 1882 Murray sent the first bunch of definition and their quotations to the Press. After the printing they were checked and corrected by a lot of people from the Society and the Oxford Press. The corrected versions were sent back to Murray. Almost every line was marked with corrections which did not make Murray’s work easier.

(Winchester, p. 125)