Herbert Coleridge, Unrecognized 1st editor of OED

Herbert Coleridge, lexicographer
Born 1830, Died 1861

When we think about the necessities of looking up a word in this era, it’s typically as easy as pulling it up on our phone with a quick Google search. Rarely, if at all, will we utilize a standard dictionary book in our home library that’s been collecting dust for who knows how many years.

Coleridge was the first editor of the Philological Society’s proposed “New English Dictionary on Historical Principles”. Together with F. J. Furnivall and R. C. Trench, Coleridge was a member of the Society’s “Unregistered Words Committee”, established in June of 1857, which led first to Trench’s seminal two lectures on deficiencies in existing dictionaries (ref. November 1857) and then to the decision to produce the dictionary that eventually turned into the OED.

Coleridge was appointed editor in 1859, the same year that he published his “Glossarial Index to the Printed English Literature of the Thirteenth Century”. In 1860, he “prepared a series of rules or canons” setting out the principles on which the dictionary was to be constructed; after extensive discussion and modification by the Society these were published as “Canones Lexicographi; or Rules to be Observed in Editing the New English Dictionary”. He also arranged for a set of fifty-four pigeon-holes to be constructed in which to file the quotations slips that volunteers were now sending in. As K. M. E. Murray points out, which in the latest of Hollywood’s productions “The MadMan and the Professor” Mel Gibson portrayed, “some 2500 holes of this size would have been needed to hold the 5-6 million slips eventually collected”.

Pictured above Herbert Coleridge’s front page of his exclusive “A Dictionary of the first, or oldest words in the English language” – ref. Semi-Saxon period 1250 – 1300

In May of 1860, in an open letter to Dean Trench, Coleridge wrote “I confidently expect, unless any unforeseen accident should occur to paralyze our efforts, that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number to the world” – ref. installment of the Dictionary.

Clearly this was over-optimistic, but Coleridge was hard-headed in other respects. For example about the quality and commitment of his volunteers, commenting, “Indeed, were it not for the dilatoriness of many contributors, who promise anything and everything, but postpone performance indefinitely, neither assisting us themselves, nor enabling us to assign the books they have taken to other and better helpers, I should not hesitate to name an earlier period”.

Unfortunately, Coleridge was already a victim of TB in 1858 and only eleven months after his letter to Trench, the disease had killed him. He died on April 23rd 1861. His last bout of illness brought on, so it was said, “by a chill caused by sitting in damp clothes during a Philological Society lecture. When he was told that he would not recover he is reported to have exclaimed, “I must begin Sanskrit tomorrow”, and he died working on the dictionary to the last, with quotation slips and word-lists spread on the quilt of his bed” – ref. K. M. E. Murray.