Walter W. Skeat Faces the World
By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I wrote that one day I would reproduce some memorable statements from Skeat’s letters to the editors. This day has arrived. I have several cartons full of paper clippings, the fruit of the loom that has been whirring incessantly for more than twenty years: hundreds of short and long articles about lexicographers, with Skeat occupying a place of honor. A self-educated man in everything that concerned the history of Germanic, he became the greatest expert in Old and Middle English and an incomparable etymologist. In England, only Murray, the editor of the OED, and Henry Sweet were his equals, and in Germany, only Eduard Sievers. Joseph Wright, another autodidact, the editor of the English Dialect Dictionary, was interested in many things outside English philology, but for Skeat English remained the prime object of research all his life. Like most people who learned so much the hard way (that is, on their own), he despised ignorance, especially when it hid behind pretense and pomposity. A professor (though not burdened with too much teaching, especially by modern standards) and a family man (yet in this area he could not compete with Murray, the father of a whole brood of children), he never flinched at the idea of writing an edifying or indignant letter to the editor, for he was a born enlightener. He chose as his perennial target was the inability of his countrymen to understand that etymology is a science rather than mildly intelligent guesswork.
James Murray often asked the readers of popular journals (especially of Notes and Queries) to send him information on the words he was editing, and his letters used to end with one and the same refrain: “But please send me facts, not guesses.” Skeat offered a short “treatise” on this subject:
“As to ‘guesses’, they differ greatly. It is quite one thing for a person to make them without any investigation and in defiance of all known phonetic and philological laws; and quite another thing to offer a suggestion for which it is worth after all available means of obtaining information have been exhausted. It is a curious thing that the worse a guess is the more obstinately it is maintained, the object being to hide ignorance by raising a cloud of dust…. The whole matter lies in a nutshell. If a man is entirely ignorant of botany or chemistry, he leaves those subjects alone. But if a man is entirely ignorant of the principles of philology (which has lately  made enormous advances), he does not leave the subject alone, but considers his ‘opinions’ as good as the most assured results of the most competent scholars. The knowledge of a language is often supposed to carry with it the knowledge of the laws of formation of the language. But this is not in the least the case…. My object has always been the same, viz., to protest against the usual state of things. In course of time the lesson will be learnt that there is really no glory to be got by making elementary blunders, or by suggesting ridiculous emendations even of Shakespeare. I cannot at all acquiesce in the notion that people who talk nonsense must never be reproved for it.”
As an illustration of the principle that there is no glory to be got by making elementary blunders, I will quote Skeat’s pronouncement on the word bower and on his opponent, a certain A.H.: “I submit that Old English should be learnt, like any other subject, by honest hard work, and the sense of old words ought not to be evolved from one’s internal consciousness…. A.H. is merely showing us how little he has really studied the subject….” The abrasive tone of Skeat’s letters made many people wince: after all, no one likes being called an obstinate fool in public. Occasionally, they tried to defend themselves, but very rarely did they know enough to be in a position to win the game on Skeat’s field. More often than not they hid behind what Skeat called a cloud of dust. Then he would strike back: “I do not understand what I have done to draw upon myself the ungenerous attack at the last reference. Even a professor is entitled to fair play, and I will now show that, in the opinion of impartial readers, he has not had it.” Miss Busk (that is, Rachel Harriett Busk, a traveler and noted folklorist) was certainly not one of those ignoramuses whom Skeat loved todemolish, but they did not see eye to eye on the origin of some words. Skeat:
“I cannot feel that Miss Busk’s account of me is quite accurate, and therefore beg leave to say a few ‘last words’. It is not the case that I ‘wince at a few knocks in return’. I have been attacked over and over again, and rather like it, if by such means we can get nearer to the truth. I have always accepted every correction that could be proved, and many such have been proved….What I complain of is that any one should set himself up as correcting me when there is nothing to show that I am wrong; I cannot help feeling that it was merely my reputation that brought it upon me, and that it was not at all provoked by my combativeness.”
He said he would “retire” and stop writing letters. The editor of Notes and Queries begged him to reconsider, and the result was more letters was more sneers. Busk:
“Prof. Skeat’s lament is very pathetic…. When circumstances have put a person in possession of any department of knowledge, be it small or great, nothing can be more irritating than the pecking comments of self-constituted critics, who, whatever their attainments along other lines, are clearly not up to the work on which they yet presume to publish their judgment. But in the present instance, if, as the learned professor complains, a ‘desire to correct him continually increases’, is it not, perhaps, provoked by the tone in which he is rather fond of correcting others?”
Laurence Urdang once brought out an article titled “The (Invariably) Right Reverend Walter W. Skeat” (Verbatim, Spring 1991). His selection of quotes was similar to mine (we even share one), but I disagree most heartily with Urdang’s calling Skeat an intellectual bully (though he does say at the beginning that Skeat was one of the greatest linguists of all time). Skeat was human and made mistakes and more than once “got into a serious hobble” (I think we now call it big doo-doo), but he was a Gulliver, and a host of the Lilliputians usually succeeds in tying each hair of a giant in such a way that he is unable to move his head. Urdang (or somebody else?) sent the article from Verbatim to Theodore Skeat, Walter W. Skeat’s grandson, whose response appeared in the same journal five years later. It confirms some things we learn from Skeat’s statements. For example, he dreamed of obscurity:
“If I remain in health and strength a few years hence [1886; he died in 1912], and if such correspondents as waste my time by expecting me to answer questions which I either do not understand or which I have answered already many times only leave me alone, I should much like to rewrite the whole book [the etymological dictionary], as I do not see how else to reform it. The penny post is a hard task-master as well as a source of kindly help. What hours have I wasted in trying to meet demands! I do not think the modern system of always expecting an answer is at all fair, or even moral.”
Alas, his dream of returning to obscurity did not come true. His grandson remembers: “…he was constantly deluged with letters from complete strangers demanding to be told the etymology of various words, and I am not at all surprised that he should have shown irritation with those who had not even taken the elementary steps of consulting either his own dictionary or the N.E.D. [= OED].” After his death, his two sons “spent weeks tearing up old letters.” I think I have read somewhere that they obeyed the wish of their father. Only a few letters survived: James Murray, on hearing of Skeat’s death, recovered those he had sent him.
Let me finish with a few more lines from Skeat’s pen. (Urdang also quotes part of this passage): “I do not set myself for a moment as a master of style, and I should advise no one to imitate any expression that I may use. I am merely a humble collector of facts, always endeavouring to find out authorities and quotations for the instruction of others. But I do not advise any one to ignore my authorities.” Humble he was certainly not (humble and modest people, as we know, usually have a good reason for displaying those admirable qualities), but, like every true scholar, he realized the magnitude of the problems he was expected to solve and his inability to hew down a mountain before which he stood. Yet he hammered away bravely. Hail to the Chief!
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”