By Beverley Hunt
With just over a week to go until Christmas, many of us are no doubt looking forward to the holidays and a few days off work. For those working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, writing the history of the language sometimes took precedence over a Christmas break.
Christmas leave in the UK today centres around a number of bank holidays, so called because they are days when, traditionally, banks closed for business. Before 1834, the Bank of England recognized about 33 religious festivals but this was reduced to just four in 1834 – Good Friday, 1 May, 1 November, and Christmas Day. It was the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 that saw bank holidays officially introduced for the first time. These designated four holidays in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland — Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day. Good Friday and Christmas Day were seen as traditional days of rest so did not need to be included in the Act. Scotland was granted five days of holiday — New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day.
So when James Murray took over as editor of the OED in 1879, Christmas Day was an accepted holiday across the whole of the UK, Boxing Day a bank holiday everywhere except Scotland, and New Year’s Day a bank holiday only in Scotland. Yet this didn’t stop editors and contributors toiling away on dictionary work on all three of those dates.
At Christmas play and make good cheer
Here is the first page of a lengthy letter to James Murray from fellow philologist Walter Skeat, written on Christmas Day, 1905. Skeat does at least start his letter with some seasonal greetings and sign off “in haste”, but talks at length about the word pillion in between! There are at least two other letters in the OED archives written on Christmas Day – a letter from W. Boyd-Dawkins in 1883 about the word aphanozygous (apparently the cheekbones being invisible when the skull is viewed from above, who knew?), and another from R.C.A. Prior about croquet in 1892.
Written on Boxing Day, 1891, this letter to James Murray is from Richard Oliver Heslop, author of Northumberland Words. After an exchange of festive pleasantries, Oliver Heslop writes about the word corb as a possible misuse for the basket known as a corf, clearly a pressing issue whilst eating turkey leftovers! Many other Boxing Day letters reside in the OED archives, amongst them a 1932 letter to OUP’s Kenneth Sisam from editor William Craigie concerning potential honours in the New Year Honours list following completion of the supplement to the OED.
Out with the old, in with the new
Speaking of New Year, here is a “useless” letter to James Murray from OUP’s Printer Horace Hart, written on New Year’s Day, 1886. Although not an official holiday in Oxford at that time, this letter provides a nice opportunity for discussing the etymology of the term Boxing Day. The first weekday after Christmas Day became known as Boxing Day as it was the day when postmen, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expected to receive a Christmas box as a monetary reward for their services during the previous year. This letter talks about baksheesh, a word used in parts of Asia for a gratuity or tip.
Holidays are coming
In case you’re wondering, New Year’s Day was granted as an additional bank holiday in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1974, as was Boxing Day in Scotland (and 2 January from 1973). So the whole of the UK now gets all three as official days of leave in which to enjoy the festive season.
Beverley Hunt is Archivist for the Oxford English Dictionary but will not be archiving on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day.
If you’re feeling inspired by the words featured in today’s blog post, why not take some time to explore OED Online? Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number. If you are in the US, why not give the gift of language to a loved-one this holiday season? We’re offering a 20% discount on all new gift subscriptions to the OED to all customers residing in the Americas.
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