It’s no surprise that writing the first comprehensive dictionary (complete with linguistic and historical details) took many years. But writing the Oxford English Dictionary took many decades. To give you some perspective, it took the writers five years just to reach the word “ant.”
The history of writing the Oxford English Dictionary
The OED (as it’s abbreviated) project took a long time to get going. It all started in 1857 when members of the Philological Society of London decided that no current English dictionaries were acceptable and that they should spearhead the ultimate version. It wasn’t until 1879 that, according to the OED website (cited below) “the Society made an agreement with the Oxford University Press and James A. H. Murray to begin work on a New English Dictionary (as the Oxford English Dictionary was then known).”
The goal was to produce a 4-volume dictionary of roughly 6,400 words with every English word recorded from 1150 AD to the present. The writers estimated that the project would take 10 years.
However, after five years, the writers had just reached the word “ant” near the middle of the A section. There was a long way to go!
This was partly due to the level of detail necessary to trace the origins of words as well as their evolution. And since language never stops evolving, some work had to be redone during the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. To this day it remains a “living document,” updated frequently.
The first part (or fascicle) of the OED was planned for an 1884 publication, but that didn’t quite work out. It would take an extra 30 years.
The dictionary required teamwork
As the team of writers grew larger, the work moved more quickly.
Murray directed a growing team and the last fascicle was published in April of 1928. Sadly, Murray did not live long enough to see the completion of the original OED since he died in 1915.
The final version of the OED was far larger than planned. It stretched to 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes (instead of the planned six). It continues to be updated to this day. — WTF fun facts