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The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: a short history

The following is an extract from the full article contained in the new seventh edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

2nd edition, 1953
3rd edition, 1979
4th edition, 1992
5th, 6th, and 7th editions, 1999–2009

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, as first suggested in 1915, would have been 'an Oxford Dictionary of Poetry Quotations'. When the project got under way in the 1930s, the original vision had widened to include 'modern quotations that have not yet got into the books'. Familiar quotations from classical and modern languages were wanted. The question of overall organization was also debated, and the principle of A-Z author organization finally agreed.

Consideration of the collection of material came with the warning that 'Even in English we shall have to guard against things quotable, as apart from things commonly quoted.' From a practical point of view it was thought risky to have texts read by people who were devoted to them. 'They probably quote, or think they quote, those texts to an abnormal extent.' The result would be a flood of material, and preparatory work that was 'vast or uneven'.

In conclusion, they were looking at a dictionary of quotations which would have a primarily literary base, and which would include quotations from major writers likely to be quoted in English by the literate and cultured person. The importance of the American market was somewhat grudgingly acknowledged ('We must consider the Americans lovingly').

By the end of the 1930s, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was nearing publication. One problem, however, remained: a promised Introduction had not materialized. In May 1941, Oxford University Press appealed to the writer Bernard Darwin, noted for his knowledge and love of quotations. Would Darwin write, and moreover write very quickly, the Introduction? If he would come over to Oxford as soon as possible he could be provided with a quiet room, the proofs of the book, and the factual Preface. They would 'gladly and thankfully' pay him fifteen guineas if at the end of six hours Darwin could produce an Introduction.

Darwin may have been flattered by the terms of the appeal ('You are the man... It's a great book, and we want a great Introduction'), or touched by its frankness ('We really are in a hole'). Whatever his reason, he accepted, and provided the missing Introduction. The Dictionary was successfully published in 1941, with the first printing of 20,000 copies being exhausted a month after publication.

The book was, inevitably, Anglocentric, a feature reinforced by the arrangement of material. The quotations were organized in such separate sections as Authors Writing in English, Book of Common Prayer, Holy Bible, Anonymous, Ballads, Nursery Rhymes, Quotations from Punch, and Foreign Quotations (Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, and German have the language of origin; Russian, Norwegian, and Swedish appear only in translation). The selection was pre-eminently a literary one: the writers most frequently quoted were Browning, Byron, Cowper, Dickens, Johnson, Kipling, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. Opening the pages today is rather like walking into a traditional study lined with leather-bound volumes.

In his hastily compiled Introduction, Bernard Darwin had reflected that, 'It is difficult today not to deal in warlike metaphors', but in fact the text of the first Dictionary reflected little of the period leading up to the Second World War. Winston Churchill, outnumbered by his father Randolph, has a single quotation from 1906, 'It cannot in the opinion of His Majesty's Government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological inexactitude.' The former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin did not appear at all, although his warning that 'the bomber will always get through' was given in 1932. Franklin Roosevelt had a single quote: his assertion during his 1932 election campaign that, 'I pledge you—I pledge myself—to a new deal for the American people.' Neville Chamberlain was also absent, although it should have been possible to record his mistaken 'I believe it is peace for our time' (returning from Munich in 1938). There was in fact very little to indicate the coming storm.

The novelist Norman Douglas once suggested that 'You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements', and a number appeared in the Dictionary. Health and concurrent good looks were in fact of particular concern, although some of the slogans seem to verge on the personal: for example, 'Good morning! Have you used Pears' soap?' Wright's Coal Tar soap (corrected to Pears in the 2nd edition of 1953) has the somewhat surprising statement, 'He won't be happy till he gets it.'

Popular songs included soldiers' songs from the First World War ('Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag') and earlier music-hall favourites ('We don't want to fight, but by jingo, if we do'). There were a few precursors of larger entries in later editions: Irving Berlin was included for 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1911), but not for 'Let's face the music and dance' (1936). Return to top

2nd edition, 1953
The warm reception given to the Dictionary ensured that a second edition would follow, and in 1949 a revision committee was set up. Their task was to work through the Dictionary considering existing matter for deletion or re-arrangement. Authors and texts identified for examination were quite diverse. At the first meeting, it was agreed to get an outside opinion on the Addison entry, to look for additional quotations from Emily Brontë, and to examine Charles I's speech on the scaffold for quotable passages. The meeting of 8 September was a key one, as it also made a momentous decision as to the organization of the material. The overall author organization would be maintained, while entries like Anonymous, Ballads, and The Bible, would be incorporated into one alphabetic sequence.

This decision meant that the second edition, when published in 1953, was much more recognizably the Dictionary we know today. There was a single A-Z alphabetic sequence, and for the first time quotations were individually numbered through the page, providing the page number to quotation number (e.g. 223:11) which is still the form of reference today. The content, however, was more reordered than substantially different. Overall the coverage was still fairly Anglocentric—Franklin Roosevelt's speeches being an exception. Winston Churchill's quotation count had risen to twenty-six. Return to top

3rd edition, 1979
1979 was to present the first substantial revision of the Dictionary since the original compilation, and it was at this point that particular categories of material were excluded. Nursery rhymes were cut altogether, on the assumption that they were fully covered by Iona and Peter Opie's Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (first published in 1951). Songs were also excluded (on the grounds that the words would not be said without the tune coming to mind, and therefore did not constitute true quotations). Advertisements, slogans, catchphrases, and other items from the world of 'broadcasting and other mass-media' were similarly to be avoided.

The existing text had been considered by the revision team. Each of the core members read the whole text (ten copies of the book with interleaved blank pages for comment were prepared). Suggestions for quotations to be added were circulated on specially prepared forms with a voting box for each item: the lists were then photocopied and distributed to the whole team, with three votes being considered necessary for inclusion. The aim was to compile a collection of popular (as distinct from familiar) quotations. The result of their efforts was to return the collection firmly to its mainstream and literary tradition: quotations reflecting what we would think of now as the western canon rather than current affairs. Perhaps more than any of the other editions it is a committee book, with fewer examples of the odd or quirky. The compilation's solid worth was to sustain the Dictionary for another thirteen years, until the publication of the fourth edition in 1992. Return to top

4th edition, 1992
The fourth edition, the last to be compiled on paper, was notable for improving the coverage of non-English authors, thinkers, and public figures, both European and American. Scientists, like a number of women writers, began to make a long-delayed appearance, and more attention was paid to current affairs. Existing material was re-evaluated and verified, songs reappeared, and authors were given brief descriptions (for nationality and occupation) as well as dates.

This particular introduction underlines a trend that can be traced through the life of the Dictionary: the further we get from 1915, the clearer a particular social and cultural change becomes. In 1941, it could be assumed that the educated reader would have had a particular kind of education, following a monolithic classical curriculum. That is now a world away: our readers come to us from many and diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. The fifth edition, of 1999, for the first time gave proper place to the sacred texts of world religions other than Christianity. More contextual information was provided: because something is familiar to one section of our readership, we could not necessarily assume that everyone will know it. We also responded to queries from readers by restoring proverbs and nursery rhymes. The 1999 edition was the first to be compiled online, and this fed back to the presentation of material: more navigational paths between quotations and authors were provided. These trends were developed and reinforced in the sixth edition of 2004. Return to top

5th, 6th, and 7th editions, 1999–2009
In the 21st century, electronic monitoring of the language has contributed increasingly to the collection of new material: quotations likely to be encountered by the general public, on which they may well seek information. The Oxford Corpus in particular (as discussed in the Introduction to this edition) has offered access to what is being quoted online, on personal websites and blogs.

As we look towards the seventieth anniversary of the book (in 2011), our challenge is to respond to the needs of the electronic community, while maintaining the distinct identity which over the decades has ensured the loyalty of readers to the printed book. Return to top

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