The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
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IN December, 1927, Sir William A. Craigie, the editor who finally brought the Oxford English Dictionary to completion, invited Professor C. C. Fries, of the Department of English of the University of Michigan, to undertake the production of a Dictionary of Early Modern English, that is, of the English language used from 1475 to 1700. As early as 1919, Craigie had proposed his plan for a series of period dictionaries as the only way to meet completely the needs of scholars in the English language and of serious students of English literature. He said:

Dealing as it [the Oxford English Dictionary] does with all periods of English from the seventh century to the twentieth, it has been impossible for it, beyond certain limits, to devote special attention to any one of these. Yet each definite period of the language has its own characteristics, which can only be appreciated when it is studied by itself, and which are necessarily obscured when it merely comes in as one link in the long chain of the language as a whole. To deal adequately with each period it is necessary to take it by itself and compile for it a special dictionary, as full and complete as may be. … As matters stand at present the comparison of the language of one period with that of another both in general respects and in special details can only be done to a very limited extent, with the result that such comparisons as are sometimes made tend to be quite misleading or at the best are incomplete and unsatisfactory.

The invitation to undertake this Early Modern English Dictionary carried with it the offer to furnish as a beginning for the work all the material that had been collected by the Oxford English Dictionary which bore upon the period from 1475 to 1700. This material was sorted out from the huge collections of the Oxford Dictionary during the summer of 1928 and the academic year of 1929-30 and sent to the dictionary offices of the University of Michigan. Altogether the University received two and one-half million quotations from this source.

Other noteworthy collections which helped to complete the evidence upon which to build the interpretations of the 125,000 words constituting the vocabulary of sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century English were:

  • (a) The slips called the "Supplement" by the workers on the Oxford Dictionary. These were citations which furnished evidence of matters missed by the Oxford Dictionary or of earlier or later instances of word meanings than those published in that dictionary. These citations had reached the editors of the Oxford Dictionary after the part of the dictionary containing the words with which they were concerned had been published. This body of evidence, amounting to 50,000 slips, was released to the Early Modern English Dictionary in the fall of 1932.
  • (b) The "Ray Agricultural" slips. These were a collection of citations, amounting in all to some 40,000 items, which Mr. F. R. Ray had gathered during a long period of years with the intention of producing a historical dictionary of agricultural terms to supplement the Oxford Dictionary in this particular field.
  • (c) A word index to Milton's prose and manuscript concordances to the works of Ben Jonson and Nicholas Breton.

In addition to the many quotations received from these sources there was the mass of material resulting from the reading Page  571program of the Early Modern English Dictionary carried out from 1929 to 1934. In this reading program the staff of the dictionary was assisted by volunteer readers representing more than two hundred different colleges and universities throughout the United States. Four hundred sixty such readers made substantial contributions to the files of the Early Modern English Dictionary and helped to gather the pertinent quotations from the important sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works of each of some 150 topics, such as architecture, painting, music, cooking, dress, furniture, commerce, astrology, hunting, heraldry, surgery, and dancing. In all, there are in the collections of the Early Modern English Dictionary more than four and one-half million quotations filed under their respective words.

From this evidence the Dictionary of Early Modern English attempts the full description of every word in the English vocabulary as it expresses and records the experience of English people during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The records show an increase in that vocabulary during these two hundred years of approximately 275 per cent, that is, from 45,000 entries for the Middle English Dictionary to 125,000 entries for the Early Modern English Dictionary. This remarkable growth of vocabulary is by no means limited to the masses of learned words borrowed from the classics and the many names for strange goods imported from the Indies, Russia, and the New World. The records show an enormous increase in the colloquial vocabulary. For example, there is the great number of new words for "striking, beating, thrashing" that are first recorded in the sixteenth century. Some of them are to bang, to baste, to box, to cudgel, to cuff, to lace, to lam, to lick, to pummel, to punch, to thump, to thwack, to whop.

But far exceeding the number of new words added to the English vocabulary during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the number of new meanings in which these words were employed. The new evidence collected by the Early Modern English Dictionary not only establishes many meanings not recorded by the Oxford Dictionary but pushes back the history of words and word meanings by means of quotations that antedate the first Oxford citation from twenty-five to three hundred years. A good example is furnished in the case of "labour." For the meaning of "labour" in an economic sense defined as "physical exertion directed to the supply of the material wants of the community; the specific service rendered to production by the labourer and artisan," the Oxford Dictionary finds the earliest quotation in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776); and for the sense "the general body of labourers and operatives, viewed in its relation to the body of capitalists, or with regard to its political interests and claims," the Oxford Dictionary finds the earliest quotation in S. Walpole's History of England (1880). The Early Modern English Dictionary, however, pushes back the history of the use of the word labour in these economic senses to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The editorial staff of the Early Modern English Dictionary has consisted of the following persons in addition to the editor, Charles C. Fries: H. T. Price, M. P. Tilley, J. E. Hull, L. L. Rockwell, Hope E. Allen, J. K. Yamagiwa, C. E. Palmer, and Katharine Fellows.

From the beginning of the enterprise in 1929 to June, 1938, the work upon the Early Modern English Dictionary was made possible by the funds supplied first by the General Education Board and later by the Rockefeller Foundation. The total funds received amounted to nearly $185,000.

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Proceedings of the Board of Regents …, 1926-40.
Rockwell, L. L."The Vocabulary of Bethwackment."Mich. Alum. Quart. Rev., 41 (1935): 444.
Weaver, Bennett. "The Romance of Words."Mich. Alum., 38 (1932): 585-86, 594.