1 February 1884: the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary is published

Dictionaries are curious things. To some people, they are the ultimate authority on a language. If a word isn’t in the dictionary, they say, it isn’t really a word, no matter how often and by how many people it’s used.

Oddly, the same people fly into paroxysms of rage when, to rustle up a little publicity for a new edition of their work, the dictionary people issue press releases with all the neologisms they’ve added that year. “But ‘sext’ isn’t even a real word!” they cry.

Each language seems to have its authoritative edition. France has Larousse, America has Webster’s, Germany has Duden. And English English has the Oxford English Dictionary, AKA the OED.

It was a long time coming. It was back in 1857 that the Philological Society of London decided the language needed a proper dictionary. But it would be another 22 years before work got under way, after the society agreed in 1879 that the book would be published by the Oxford University Press.

Initially, the editors thought it would take ten years to complete, and would be contained in just four volumes. But after five years’ labour, they had only got as far as “Ant”. They decided to end the first volume (or “fascicle”, as they called it) there, and it was published on this day in 1884 under the name the “New English Dictionary”. It was 352 pages long, cost 12/6 and sold 4,000 copies.

Eventually, the dictionary ran to ten volumes, and contained over 400,000 words and phrases. The final volume wasn’t published until 1928. It was reprinted in 1933 as 12 volumes plus a supplement, and was renamed the Oxford English Dictionary. It expanded to 20 volumes in 1989.

In 1984, the publishers decided to digitise the dictionary. It took 120 typists five years, and a CD Rom edition was published in 1992. Now, of course, it is to be found online, available free of charge to anyone with a library card.

The third edition of the dictionary, currently under way, is unlikely ever to be printed, and will only be available in electronic format.