Meaning of Everything

In 1928, 414,825 words were discerned and discovered and catalogued for publication in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before this time, no one had thought to make a list of all English words, to write down the meanings. Not even Shakespeare had means to a dictionary during most of his writing career. He essentially had to find words in other writings, note down words or expressions he had learned in conversations, or just conjure words out of thin air. In fact, many of the words that he invented are in the Dictionary today.

I find this so fascinating. I had always assumed that the great writers of the seventh, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had access to a reference of words which included usage, meaning and origin. Alas, this was not the case.

One of the books for my Holiday reading is The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. This is the story behind the creation of the “World’s Greatest Dictionary”. There were 414,825 entries of the English language in the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary.  According to Winchester, there are 611 different senses of the word run and 700 different uses for the noun sea. What???

Where did our English language originate? According to Winchester, the English language derives linguistically from the Germanic tribes which were comprised of the Frisians, Jutes, Saxons and Angles, more commonly known as the Anglo-Saxons. We call this “Old English” today. My daughter Lorin, who teaches European History at Howard Payne University, researched her Dissertation at Oxford in Old English texts which date back over 500 years. How cool is that!

If you had a chance to read Beowulf in High School, you would have been introduced to Old English:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

    [LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!]

We have been using many of these same pronouns and prepositions (us, for, to him, in he) and verbs (sing, stood, answered) found in Beowulf for 1,000 years. Eventually, this Old English developed into Middle English through the French language during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In fact, we still use many French words (cognates) in our Modern English usage: denouement, menu, picnic, salade, restaurant, chef, café, etc.

The first known attempt to compile English vocabulary was by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. Cawdry was a schoolmaster from Oakham and wrote a slender octavo book of 120 printed pages entitled: A Table Alphabetically, conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English words, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French. There were 3,000 words “For benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentelwomen or any other unskilled person” (22). Some of the words from this “synonymicon” were: bubulcilate, archgrammacian, and attemptate.

Following this, Samuel Johnson from Lichfield, a school teacher and journalist and conversationalist, created a dictionary in 1755 which set standards for all future English dictionaries (27).

And finally, in 1790, Noah Webster produced the American Dictionary of English Language. The American was double in size of Johnsons with 1,600 pages and 70,000 headwords. Webster was determined to purify and fix the English Language that he felt Johnson had cheapened in his dictionary by including “vulgarisms and other low words” (35).

According to Sartre, “In the eighteenth century to write a Philosophical Dictionary was secretly to undermine the class in power. Voltaire’s century was analytic. In the nineteenth century, Littre and Larousse were positivist and conservative bourgeois; their dictionaries aimed solely at verifying and settling matters (What is Literature? 225). To be honest, I had never thought of the composition of a dictionary to be political in nature until I read Sartre’s account during the German occupation. This is eye-opening.

How does one define a word?

The earliest process is Aristotelian in origin. A word must first be defined according to the class of things, by the genus, to which the chosen meaning belongs (mammal, quadruped, hooved), and then differentiated differentiae, in Aristotelian terms–from members of its class. The definition must be written to show what the thing signified by the word is, and not what it is not. And all the words used in the definition must appear elsewhere in the dictionary.  No word in the dictionary should be more complicated than the word that is being defined.[116]

 What are the sources for the words that are to be put into a dictionary?

1) Those found in existing dictionaries; 2) words heard in conversations; and 3) words that are to be found by a concerted trawl through texts of literature.[31]

 How did this process of writing the Oxford Dictionary begin? In 1857, The Philological Society of Oxford established a Committee to ascertain just what words might have been left out of the current English Dictionaries. The members would scour literature, newspapers, songs, conversation to update. Their findings:

1) Obsolete words were not fully registered in any dictionary.
2) Families or groups of words were only capriciously included in dictionaries.
3) History of words rarely looked back far enough to find original meaning
4) Important meanings and senses of the words had all too often been passed over.
5) Little distinguishing between apparently synonymous words
6) Redundancy of previous dictionaries
7) Much of the literature which had been read for illustrative quotations had not been read at all for context.

After establishing these findings, the committee began to record vocabulary on quotation slips. There were several directors of the Philological Society over these twenty years: Chenevix Trench, Frederick Furnivall and Herbert Coleridge who built a suite of pigeon holes in which to arrange words an over 100,000 quotation slips. Unfortunately, Coleridge died at 31 of consumption.

Murray in Scriptorium, pigeon holes
Murray in Scriptorium with pigeon holes!



The most influential director of the Society was John Murray. Murray was 38, a bank clerk, a teacher, a lowland Scot, a Calvinist who was a polyglot who knew French, Italian, Catalan, Spanish , Latin, Dutch, Flemish, German, Danish, Celtic, Russian, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and  Phenecian.

Murray’s first task was to go through nearly 2 million quotation slips that dated back 20 years that Coleridge had started.[98] These slips had a headword, or lemma, at top left, date, author and precise source of quotation written below, quote itself.

Murray and his team worked tirelessly with very little sleep in a “Scriptorium” on writing the Oxford Dictionary. Murray needed more help. He was not satisfied with the results he had. He wanted to research each vocabulary word in literature as far back as was possible.

Murray sent out a request for volunteers to help compile slips. Many of the letters that Murray wrote to find definitions were to celebrated figures: Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning (who contributed apparitional). Eight hundred responded. This project was to be the involvement “of the people” as this would be for the people, classically democratic. I wish this was still possible. I would love to be a contributor to a Dictionary. [The closest I’ve come to this experience is to follow the American Dialect Society on Social Media. The Society choses the Word of the Year as part of #LSA2020#AD2020].

One of the most helpful contributors was William Chester Minor, an American army surgeon and murderer who worked from his cells at the Broadmoor Asylum in Berkshire. He worked 21 years until he fell ill in 1902. [Throughout this partnership, Murray and Minor would become friends, 200.]

Murray specified that it was important that all quotations slips represented the full history of a particular word. Words that needed further research to find citations earlier were classified as desiderata. This is still used today. Volunteer’s see if they can spy OED earlier dates (124). How do I sign up for this?

 While these slips were being collected and confirmed as credible, the Philological Society were writing the dictionary which was divided into three sections:

  1. Main Words: each of these words deserved a separate article, like “advance” has 16 meanings for verb form, 10 meanings for noun form and takes up a whole page of the dictionary.
  2. Combinations: doubled-up words : advance-guard, advance-proofs
  3. Subordinate words: cross referenced to the Main words; for example, “advent is the obsolete version of the verb “to advance”.

Today, many use online dictionaries like Merriam-Webster which can be updated often. I get that. I was discussing this in my ENG Lit class yesterday. One student found the word “selfie” in the Dictionary [submitted in 2012- origin Australia]. I told my class that I would give them extra credit if they produced a print version of the dictionary- preferably pre Mid-Century!!

Reading The Meaning of Everything has inspired me to create my own quotation slips, or “lemmas” as I refer to them, from the annotations from my library which dates back to the late 19th century. Quite an undertaking, n’est-ce pas? I love the idea of desiderata, taking a word back to its full history.

I have already begun making lemmas from The Meaning of Everything! Seemed fitting.


meaning lemma
A lemma from Meaning

My husband even bought me a card catalog to file my lemmas. [It has the same palette as my recent Cubism painting!] This card catalog is located in my “Scriptorium”!! Perhaps one day I will compile my own “Reading Dictionary” with English, French, German and Russian vocabulary I have amassed through the years. How fun!


meaning card catalogue
My card catalog!


Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (