Our history

The early days

Oxford Dictionaries is part of Oxford University Press (OUP), a department of the University of Oxford.

OUP traces its history back to 1478, but its defining moment was perhaps the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the definitive record of the English language. In 1857, members of the Philological Society of London declared existing English language dictionaries to be incomplete and deficient, and called for a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times onward. They knew they were embarking on an ambitious project but could not have imagined just how long it would take.

In 1879, when OUP got involved and James A. H. Murray was appointed by the Society as Chief Editor, the dictionary was planned as a four-volume, 6,400-page work that would take about ten years to put together. Five years down the road, Murray and his colleagues had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’. They realized it was time to review their schedule.

In April 1928 – 71 years after the project was first conceived – the last volume was published. Instead of 6,400 pages in four volumes, the dictionary contained over 400,000 words and phrases in ten volumes.

One of the innovations the OED developed was collecting, from the general public, real-life evidence of words in context to help editors create the most complete picture of the language possible. Contributions were made on slips of paper with over 1,000 slips soon being sent in daily. The OED was pioneering not only in its use of real-life evidence, but also in establishing one of the world’s first crowd-sourcing projects.

20th century dictionaries

The great OED is not the only Oxford dictionary. In 1906, when work on the OED had reached the letter M, Humphrey Milford of Oxford University Press drew up a plan for a smaller dictionary which would draw on the riches of the as-yet incomplete historical work. The first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary was published in 1911. Many other dictionaries followed throughout the century, including the world-famous Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for learners of English rather than native speakers, which was first published in 1948.

Dictionaries in the 21st Century

We still collect evidence of how language is actually used, but now we use vast text databases – known as corpora – which are updated constantly with text from the internet and other digital sources. These corpora illustrate the broadest ranges of speech and written language and show results in a fraction of the time that it used to take, so new words and meanings can be captured as they appear.

We want speakers of every language to be able to benefit from the digital experiences that speakers of English and the other major languages already enjoy. That’s why we’ve built web technology which allows speakers of many different languages to contribute content to help us to develop and expand digital dictionaries in their languages. Under the banner of the Oxford Global Languages initiative, we are developing digital tools and resources to give these languages a living, growing presence in the digital landscape.

Today, we produce a wide range of printed and online resources including dictionaries for learners of English, monolingual and bilingual dictionaries in multiple languages for users of all ages and abilities, and dictionaries of regional English.

Our dictionaries help to power the language applications and software that underpin everyday life through our long-standing partnerships with major technology companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. 

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