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Dictionary as a Cultural Artefact: Oxford and Webster Dictionaries

This article provides a brief review of the major Oxford and Webster dictionaries, and introduces the notion of dictionary compiled on historical principles.

When asked for the title of an English dictionary, people are likely to say Oxford or Webster.

Why are these two names so strongly associated with English dictionaries (Oxford for British dictionaries, and Webster for American dictionaries)? It’s because of the status they have acquired over more than a century of development. There have, in fact, been hundreds of dictionary editions with Oxford or Webster in their titles but with different purposes and styles – something that may confuse dictionary users who think in terms of ‘the’ dictionary, an unvarying authority that provides the same information regardless of its format and date of publication.

Oxford dictionaries

The Oxford dictionary tradition began with A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which was published in ‘fascicles’ (instalments) from 1879 onwards, and originally aimed to cover ‘every word occurring in the literature of the language’. The title Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first used in 1895 and a full version bearing this title was published in 10 bound volumes in 1928. A second edition, in 20 volumes with 291,500 entries, was published in 1989 and there have been supplements and additions to the content ever since, especially since it became available in electronic format – on CD-ROM in 1988 and then online in 2000. Revisions to the online version will eventually lead to a completely new third edition. However, although the third edition will be about twice the size of the second edition, it will never be exhaustive. There is no foundation for the prevalent myth that the OED contains ‘every word and every meaning of every word which has ever formed part of the English language’ (Simpson, 2000).

The OED is generally regarded as ‘the principal dictionary of record for the English language’ (Simpson 2000). As a historical dictionary, the meanings in each entry are listed in historical order, starting from the earliest sense. For example, the first recorded use of the word ‘nice’ (in the 13th century) meant ‘foolish’, and the familiar contemporary use dates only from the late 18th century, so this meaning is only listed much later in the dictionary entry.

Quotations (usually from literary sources) provide contexts for each word, starting with the earliest record of the word the editors are aware of and ending with its last known record if the word is now obsolete. This approach, and the amount of detail in each entry, suits historians of the English language but is less convenient for other users, and for this reason Oxford University Press eventually produced an entirely new major dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) (formerly the New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998) which focuses on current word use. The OED still serves as the basis for scholarly historical dictionaries such as the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary, but the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary and other recent editions with the prestigious Oxford name are now derived from the ODE.

Webster dictionaries

In the USA, the name of Webster is similarly prestigious and is used in a variety of titles for dictionaries which do not all share the same origins. The name originated with Noah Webster (1758–1843), a journalist, textbook writer and lexicographer who first found fame by publishing a spelling book – the Blue-Backed Speller – which sold millions of copies. He went on to compile An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828.

Webster was a young man at the time of the American revolutionary war and he saw his lexicographical work as a way of promoting American values and an American national identity, for example by standardising usage and popularising spellings such as center, color and wagon, thought to be simpler than British spellings and a better reflection of the way the words are pronounced. Although it was not a great commercial success in his lifetime, the rights to An American Dictionary of the English Language were acquired by George and Charles Merriam after Webster’s death and have been used as a source for all the subsequent Merriam-Webster dictionaries, including the unabridged International and New International dictionaries, and the shorter Collegiate dictionaries (Landau, 2008).

The Merriams used the Webster name to support their claim that their dictionaries were ‘the ultimate authority’ on correct language use, but when the copyright for the 1841 edition of the American Dictionary expired in 1889 other dictionary-makers also started producing Webster’s dictionaries. Legal hearings in the 1940s ruled that Webster’s simply meant a ‘dictionary’, and although Merriam-Webster sued Random House in 1991 when they produced the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, in the end, it was decided that the use of the prestigious Webster name did not violate any trademark (Landau 2008). American college dictionaries were very successful in the 20th century because of the rapid increase in the number of people entering tertiary education and the fact that many university entrants came from families where English was not the first language. Unlike their Oxford counterparts, the American college dictionaries not only prescribed correct language use but also provided illustrations and encyclopedic facts at a time before the world wide web was available to supply such information.

Prescriptive and descriptive approaches

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1961, contained more current words than previous editions and, to make space, it removed illustrations, encyclopedic content and many obsolete words. It also broke with tradition by attempting to describe how language is actually used (it acknowledged, for example, the oral use of ‘ain’t’). The response to these changes was highly critical – the mid-20th-century American public expected a Webster’s dictionary to be prescriptive rather than descriptive, to provide rules, and to tell them which uses were and were not correct.

In the computer age, the descriptive approach is becoming the norm, facilitated by the fact that lexicographers can access larger and larger amounts of text in electronic form on which to base their descriptions. Nevertheless, as Pius ten Hacken points out (2012: 838), languages are not ‘empirical entities’ – new words, new meanings and new patterns of use are coined all the time and there is no empirical way to verify whether they are really part of a given language. For this reason, it is wrong to imagine that any English dictionary can completely describe the English language and it is probably best just to view dictionaries simply as problem-solving tools, designed in many different ways to solve many different types of problem.


Landau, S. (2008) ‘The American Collegiate dictionaries’.in  The Oxford History of English Lexicography. ed. by Cowie, A. P. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 361-384

Simpson, J. (2000) ‘Preface to the Third Edition of the OED’. Oxford English Dictionary [online] available from [5 November 2019]

ten Hacken, P. (2012) ‘In what sense is the OED the definitive record of the English language’? Proceedings of the 15th EURALEX International Congress Oslo, Norway 7-11 August 2012, [online] 834-845. available from [5 November 2019]

Further reading

These websites provide historical information about the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Understanding English Dictionaries

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