How it Began

The Dictionary’s original concept differed completely from what was actually published almost 70 years later. It was supposed to be divided into three parts: Part I, comprising most of the words Part II, comprising all technical words and proper names Part III enlisting all appendant etymologies The first years of the dictionary development were very frustrating and the project advanced only slowly. The following quotations, the first from May 1860 and the second from May 1882, clearly demonstrate this extremely slow progress.

I believe that the scheme is now firmly established … and I confidently expect … that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number to the world. Indeed, were it not for the dilatoriness of many contributors, I should not hesitate to name an earlier period.

(Herbert Coleridge, first editor of The New English Dictionary, 30 May 1860)

The great fact … is, that the Dictionary is now at last really launched, and that some forty pages are in type, of which forty-eight columns have reached me in proof.

(James Murray, third editor of The New English Dictionary, 19 May 1882)

The first official editor of the new English Dictionary was Herbert Coleridge. He contacted schools, universities and members of the Society in order to find volunteers. Their first task was to collect as many useful quotations as they could find for every word that began with the letters A to E. Coleridge was able to mobilize a group of 147 men, but the euphoria of some volunteers started fading quickly. Therefore the number of volunteers diminished to 89 only a couple of months later. Still, these quotations were Coleridge’s “basis of comparison” (Winchester, p.54). Coleridge liked having many quotations for a word because he could then present different meanings and uses more clearly. After having arranged the meanings, he was able to give a historical overview of how a word’s meaning and use had changed over time.
While Coleridge was working on the second ‘basis of comparison’ in April 1861, he came down with a cold which turned to consumption and he died on April 23rd. He was only 31 years old.
The project’s work lay for about two years on Coleridge’s desk until finally a successor was found, namely Frederick Furnivall. Furnivall was 36 years old when he took over the project and he thought it would only take him about four more years to complete the dictionary. He gathered an increasing number of volunteers to perform the lexicographical grunt-work, which he did not think to be proper work for him (Winchester, p. 66). This attitude and his irascibility caused many volunteers to leave again quite quickly. The hired sub-editors started deserting the project because they were intimidated by the huge number of quotations. Even the Philological Society started to withdraw from the dictionary project although Furnivall was successfully watching the development of the third ‘basis of comparison’ for the letters M to Z. Furnivall was not a fool. He knew how dreadful his organisational skills were. Therefore he was already looking for a replacement.
In the following years the project almost vanished. In 1872 Furnivall had to admit that “progress in the Dictionary has been so slight that no fresh report in detail is needed” (Winchester, p. 68). The general belief was that the Dictionary would never be finished with Furnivall as its supervisor and editor.
Four years later, the fate of the Dictionary was about to change. In March 1876 Furnivall finally found a man who would be his successor. This man was James Augustus Henry Murray. Furnivall chose him because of a chance remark Murray made to him: “I rather wish I could have a go at it” (Winchester, p. 84). Murray never thought to be taken seriously but, luckily for the following development, he was.
After having solved this problem the next one arose. Murray needed to find a publisher who would support the Dictionary financially. They approached the Cambridge University Press as well as the Oxford University Press, but the initial discussions did not go well. They both denied publishing the Dictionary. The discussions took well over several months and Murray started to become discouraged. Furnivall, still a strong supporter of the project, started to talk to the printing press all over again. The Cambridge Press insisted on refusing their participation. They did not want to have anything to do with a project which was connected to Furnivall. In April 1877, Henry Sweet who was close to the Oxford Press wrote a letter to them to convince them that they should publish the Dictionary, simply because they were the only press that had not said ‘no’ explicitly. It took a full year until a final decision was made. There were a lot of discussions whether Murray was the right man to be in charge of the work on the Dictionary or not. Murray knew about these discussions and the longer they took the more he started doubting himself. He even had a dream about what Johnson would have judged him. In April 1878, the Oxford Press agreed to publish the Dictionary. Again one year later, in March 1879, after a long quarrel over money, the deal was finally closed. They agreed on the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles formed mainly on the Materials collected by the Philological Society and with the Assistance of many Scholars and Men of Science (Winchester, p. 93). It was presumed that the Dictionary should contain 7,000 pages, that it should cost £ 9,000 and that the development should not take longer than ten years. As we know today, these estimates were far too optimistic.