A short history of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary
2011 marks the centenary of the publication of the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 1911. In a hundred years the Concise has become a trusted record of the development of our language. Each edition has followed the tradition of the first in supplying a clear and up-to-date record of current English.
How it all began …
Oxford University Press had been working on the vast Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since the mid-nineteenth century. The first part had been published by 1884 and by 1906 they had reached the letter M. By then, the Press had a different project in mind: the production of a smaller, more accessible dictionary for the general reader.
To tackle this, Humphrey Milford, the then Assistant Secretary to the Delegates, decided to write to Henry and Frank Fowler, two brothers who had already worked with the Press on the usage guide The King’s English. They were just the pair to take on the project which Humphrey described as a pleasant occupation taking up three hours a day.
In fact, it was an immense undertaking. The brothers sought to condense the mammoth resources of the OED, both published and archived, into one easy volume. Each word had to be scrutinized and selected and each entry carefully composed. To condense the OED the Fowlers removed nearly all archaic or obsolete words, but they also included a variety of slang and colloquial expressions to capture the English language as it was spoken in their time.
By 1911 the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary was finally complete, but publication was only the beginning.
A record of our language
The many upheavals and social changes of the twentieth century brought a constant flow of new words, and updating the Concise was an ongoing process. By 1914 the first ‘addenda’ or supplement was added to the first edition, including such additions as cinema, movies, and Zeppelin. 1929 saw the publication of a second edition containing new words coined during the First World War, including trench foot and trench coat.
The perpetual task of updating the Concise continued as each edition sought to include the newest words of its age: the 1940s saw the inclusion of wartime phrases such as blitz and Gestapo while in the 1950s new terms of science and technology such as antibiotic and clone were added.
Over time, the process of including new words has changed dramatically: in the early twentieth century the entire dictionary was set in metal plates which had to be melted down and recast to include any changes, so that it was much easier to include new words in addenda than to incorporate them in the main text. These metal plates were still being used well into the 1950s.
Individual editors have made their mark on the dictionary over time. After the death of Frank in 1918 and Henry in 1934 the editorship was taken over by Henry Le Mesurier and then Ernest McIntosh in 1940. Both were schoolmasterly types who lived and worked in rented rooms in Exmouth, Devon. In many ways, the inclusion of words was down to their personal taste and influence. For example, McIntosh (by then 70 years old) was somewhat resistant to the swinging sixties and decided not to include words such as fab and mod, although beatnik was added.
After the death of McIntosh in 1970 the production of the dictionary was moved to Oxford University Press premises. Now a full team of people would work together on the research and selection of words and be able to work even more closely with the OED editorial team.
Into the digital age…..
The next great innovation was in 1990, when the eighth edition of the Concise became computerized. Dictionary entries were keyed into a database, broken down into their elements (headword, pronunciation, part of speech, subject area, definition, example, etymology), and each element was surrounded by opening and closing ‘tags’ which allowed the retrieval of specific information from the database. The layout of the dictionary was redesigned for clarity and speed of access, and entries were written in clear, continuous prose.
The groundbreaking New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) was the next leap forward for Oxford Dictionaries and became the main source from which the Concise was derived. This was the first English dictionary compiled primarily from the evidence of a corpus, the hundred-million-word British National Corpus. Now called simply the Oxford Dictionary of English, it forms the basis for the Oxford Dictionaries range, both in print and online.
The new twelfth edition
The new edition of the Concise is edited online and can be updated by editors all over the world, and is the work of a team of in-house and external editors, rather than two scholarly men living in Guernsey. However, the character of the Concise remains the same – it continues to reflect the development and growth of the English language as it is spoken in our own time.
Find out more about the Concise Oxford English Dictionary centenary