Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Dublin on Bloomsday: James Joyce and the OED

The sixteenth of June is the day on which James Joyce fans traditionally email each other their Bloomsday greetings. And nowadays it has become the focus for a global celebration of Joyce’s work, marked by readings and performances, and many other acts of Joycean homage.

Nutty gizzards, fried hencod roes, and Nora Barnacle

The reason: the action of Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) takes place on this day in 1904. During the novel we follow Leopold Bloom–its hero and antihero–from his breakfast of bread, butter, and slightly burnt pork kidneys (despite his longing for nutty gizzards and fried hencod roes), on his passage through the streets of Dublin, his encounters with (and avoidance of) fellow Dubliners, his cab ride out to Glasnevin for Paddy Dignam’s funeral, his lover’s intrigue, and much more, until he retires for the evening (home like Odysseus to Ithaca and Penelope) and–in counterpoint to his own intermittent “interior monologue”–we hear his wife Molly’s astounding and rambling stream-of-consciousness jumble of thoughts, impressions, loves, hates, and sundry inconsequentialities, in the longest sentence ever published in the English language.

And the reason for the reason: Joyce wanted to commemorate the day in 1904 when he first walked out in Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

The first Bloomsday: hortensias, white and dyed

Dubliners title page by James Joyce. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bloomsday isn’t a word from the core vocabulary of English, but we included it in the OED for its “cultural” significance. The first known reference comes from Joyce himself, in a letter of 27 June 1924 – written from Paris, where he lived in self-imposed exile. He tells his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, about “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—16 June. They sent me hortensias, white and blue, dyed” (after the colours of the book jacket: Joyce was in hospital recovering from an eye operation). He scrawled despondently in his notebook: ‘Today 16 June 1924 twenty years after. Will anybody remember this date?’

Joyce anticipated that 16 June could become etched in the minds of the book-buying public. But Bloomsday didn’t immediately assume global importance. Joyce was a writer looking for a reputation. Many readers avoided his banned book, others found it too long and complex, but a hardcore of admiring fans did exist, and gradually they started to grow.

The first Bloomsday was celebrated publicly in Ireland in 1954, its 50th anniversary, when writers Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Davy Byrne’s pub, and Bloom’s “home” at 7 Eccles Street, reading parts of Ulysses and drinking generously along the way (pictured in the featured image). The Times Literary Supplement has little to say about Bloomsday until the late 1950s. This date profile is supported by a Google ngrams word profile.

Absent heroes: the OED waits until 1972 to embrace Joyce

The OED’s reception of Joyce follows a similar pattern. Ulysses was published six years before the completion of the First Edition of the dictionary in 1928. But although the OED was full of references to the literary heroes of the past, it was entirely silent about Joyce. It could have cited him: Dubliners, for example, was published in 1914.

Joyce was still absent from the first Supplement to the OED in 1933. But the situation changed with the second Supplement (1972-86). Here it was hard to avoid Joyce, who leapt onto the leader board of most-cited authors. The vast majority of his 1,709 quotations derived were provided by a single OED contributor, Roland Auty, a retired English master from Faversham, Kent, and author of Nesfield’s Errors in English Composition (Madras: 1961). OED Editor Bob Burchfield wanted to see modern writers better represented in the dictionary: ‘like a medieval scribe,’ he recalled, ‘[Auty] copied in his own handwriting many thousands of 6×4 inch slips on which he entered illustrative examples for any word or meaning that occurred in Joyce and was not already entered in the Dictionary.’

James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915 restored. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The emergence of Joyce in the OED followed a global trend in Joyce appreciation. The dictionary has continued to add further examples from his works, and currently includes 2,436 quotations, with 1,728 coming from Ulysses.

Joyce’s double life in the OED

There is a sting in the tale to this story of the rise of Joyce in the OED. In his efforts to reproduce the fading Dublin of his youth, Joyce littered his text with words and phrases extracted from his reading, using a technique resembling that of the OED’s “readers.” He even included personal details of real Dubliners, lightly disguised or explicitly–sometimes even giving their home addresses (“the disorderly house of Mrs Bella Cohen, 82 Tyrone street, lower:” Mrs Cohen lived there from 1888 until 1905).

The aggregate number of his quotations is increasing, in line with his growing popularity, but the actual number of his first usages diminishes with each quarterly update simply because, with the mass of online material available, OED editors are able to find earlier sources, such as those Joyce himself ransacked for verisimilitude.

Eyeslits, prurition, rib steak, and the future

When the Second Edition of the OED was published in 1989, it contained 548 terms first attributed to Joyce. With the revision almost 40% complete, exactly one hundred of those usages have been replaced by other, earlier examples: eyeslit rockets back from Ulysses in 1922 to Noble’s Geodaesia Hibernica (1768); prurition plummets to Claude Lancelot’s Primitives of the Greek Tongue (1748); rib steak migrates to Charles Elmé Francatelli’s Modern Cook (1846). None of this reduces Joyce as a writer, but allows us to refine the areas in which his true creativity lies.

Joyce will remain a major source of vocabulary for the OED. In celebrating Bloomsday we are gratifying the author, who saw a marketing opportunity before it occurred to the mass of his reading public, but we are also paying homage to a writer whose engagement with the OED will continue–and doubtless change–for many years to come.

Featured image credit: Bloomsday performers outside Davy Byrne’s pub, Dublin, Bloomsday 2003. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.  

Recent Comments

  1. Gerard Lee

    The photo is of Paul O’Hanrahan and Gerard Lee, of Balloonatics, performing in Dublin. 29th consecutive Bloomsday this year.

Comments are closed.