Crowdsourcing the Oxford English Dictionary
One of the most ambitious literary projects ever undertaken was the crowdsourcing effort to collect every word in the English language.
Oxford University Press, United Kingdom
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the principal historical dictionary of the English language dealing with the meanings of present-day words and the historical development of their forms and meanings. It lays claim to being a definitive record of every single English word from 1000 AD to the present day and is also an early example of crowdsourcing.
This quest to capture the English language got underway in 1857 under the auspices of the Philological Society of London but 20 years later was nowhere near complete. Then in 1879 the Oxford University Press took over the project and invited a little-known Scottish schoolteacher and philologist called James Murray to take charge. Only then did things really start to move and that was because of a bold idea of Murray’s to crowdsource the dictionary’s creation.
He put out an appeal in newspapers and library books asking for volunteers. They were tasked with noting all the words beginning with their assigned letter of the alphabet or sequence of letters and their meanings, as well as other information. Participants were also asked to search for quotations that would demonstrate how words change over time. Contributions had to be mailed to Murray who was operating out of a corrugated iron outbuilding called the ‘Scriptorium’. So large was the response that the postal services erected a postbox outside of Murray’s house.
More than 2,000 enthusiasts from all walks of life from across the world took part, making around five million contributions. One of the most prominent contributors was an ex-US military surgeon named William Chester Minor who provided more than 10,000 entries. He contributed from Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital in the south of England.
Shortly after arriving in the UK Minor killed a man during a psychotic episode. He was found not guilty on grounds of insanity and sent to Broadmoor. The fascinating story of the origin of the OED and the relationship between Murray and Minor is told in the 2019 biographical drama movie ‘The Professor and The Madman’ starring Mel Gibson as Murray and Sean Penn as Minor.
The first part of the OED, A to Ant was published in 1884 and several installments emerged over the next 40 years. The finished dictionary was ready in 1928, 13 years after Murray had died. It was a ten-volume collection containing more than 400,000 definitions and was one of the largest books ever made.
Like all dictionaries, the work is never finished. Today, the OED is continuously updated and continues to rely on crowdsourced contributions. Among the ways the public can contribute is by sending in word suggestions via social media and the OED’s official website.
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