By Ken Zurski
In 1858, Herbert Coleridge took on the daunting task of compiling and completing a new English dictionary. It was not an easy undertaking. Wordbooks as they were known had dated back to the early 17th century, and by the 19th century, an American lexicographer named Noah Webster made dictionaries that were based mostly on personal assessments of the English language, which in Webster’s opinion was too closely identified with the British. Coleridge’s dictionary would be different and involve hundred of volunteers who would find unlisted words in books and write them down on note cards along with the word’s source.
The note idea was not Coleridge’s but rather that of Richard Chenevix Trench, a British professor and lexicographer, who proposed using everyday readers to participate in the dictionary’s creation. “It would be necessary to recruit a team moreover, a huge one comprising hundreds of unpaid amateurs,” Trench proposed.
Trench’s vision took hold and Coleridge, a philologist, was called upon to make it happen.
Coleridge went to work designing a system of collecting the reader’s notes and organizing them. He also grossly underestimated that it would take only two years to complete the work. In reality, near the two year mark, the dictionary was far from finished, and Coleridge, unfortunately, was dead.
Officially Coleridge died of consumption, or a bout of tuberculosis, which makes sense. However, biographers paint a more fanciful ending. While walking to a lecture hall in London’s St. James Square, Coleridge got caught in a downpour and sat soaking wet in an unheated upstairs room for several hours listening to the speaker. His chills turned to a debilitating fever and eventual death.
Despite his untimely demise, the dictionary idea did not go with him. Several enthusiastic wordsmith’s picked up the slack. Soon they learned what a formidable task Coleridge faced. In just a few years of work, Coleridge had only gotten halfway through the first letter. Undeterred the vision carried on and in 1878, nearly a quarter century after Coleridge began. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles was released. Today, the book is cited as the basis for the inaugural Oxford English Dictionary which was released in 1895.
Coleridge is often listed as its first editor.