A certain member of the Reference Department turned 159 years old last week. No, it’s not one of the staff. It is the Oxford English Dictionary, familiarly known as the OED.
The OED is well-known to authors, crossword puzzle fans, librarians, and college English majors. The second edition (1989) has been on our reference shelves for many years and feels almost like a member of the staff.
If you are not a wordsmith you may never come into contact with it, however, a new movie is in production starring Sean Penn as one of the OED's major contributors and Mel Gibson as the editor of the first edition, Sir James A. H. Murray.
The OED was formally proposed to members of the Philological Society of London on November 5, 1857. Those who made the proposal estimated that it would contain 6,400 words in four volumes and take ten years to complete. They underestimated. It took a team of hundreds of people studying words from any and all English-speaking countries forty years of work to produce the massive dictionary. It has approximately 600,000 words and 3 million quotations contained in twenty volumes – on thin pages with small print.
Why did the members of the philological society feel a new dictionary was necessary? They informed the society that the existing dictionaries (Johnson, Webster, Richardson and others) needed to be consolidated and that the proposed dictionary should contain not only current words, but also every word that had ever been used in English. It became the most authoritative dictionary of the English language. A major revision is in the works.
You may peruse it in the print version in the reference department or online via the library's databases. If, for example you are curious about how the word “hassle” came into being, you can look it up and discover that it was first used in an American jazz magazine in 1945. Or you may want to read the book The Word Detective; Searching for the Meaning of it all at the Oxford English Dictionary by John Simpson (2016) or The Professor and the Madman; a Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998).