The Oxford English Dictionary and the Public

Letter-writing played an essential role in creating the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A new display in the Weston Library (15th April-3rd July) gives a snapshot view of some of the huge correspondence engaged in by the OED’s first chief editor, James Murray (1837-1915), whose papers are now preserved in the Bodleian archives. Included are letters by George Eliot (on adust), Thomas Hardy (on West Country words), Tennyson (balm-cricket), R. L. Stevenson (brean), William Gladstone (dogmatization) and others, all responding to queries from the OED’s first chief editor, James Murray (1837-1915), as to what they meant when they used a particular word and how that should be explained in the new dictionary.

Other exhibits show some of the results of an appeal Murray made to the general public in 1891 on how the word content(s) should be pronounced—the 400-odd responses included postcards from academics, men and women of letters, and ‘ordinary’ people, not least the young Gertrude Bell (later to become famous as an explorer, diplomat and archaeologist).

Murray also took great care to write back to individuals who sent him letters asking about ‘correct’ pronunciation, spelling, and many other language matters. He was not always consistent, but in general he urged liberal acceptance of variation in spoken language. ‘‘We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike’ he wrote to one unnamed recipient (“Dear Madam”); “why should not we use our liberty in speech also, as long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?”

The display reveals some of the wealth of material feeding into the pilot edition of Murray’s correspondence, ‘The Murray Scriptorium’, which is being edited by Professor Charlotte Brewer (Hertford) and Dr Stephen Turton (Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge). The project is funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust and will go live later this year. More details at


oed bodleian exhibition poster