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Esperanto, chocolate, and biplanes in Braille: the interests of Arthur Maling

The Oxford English Dictionary is the work of people: many thousands of them. In my work on the history of the Dictionary I have found the stories of many of those people endlessly fascinating. Very often an individual will enter the story who cries out to be made the subject of a biography in his or her own right; others, while not quite fascinating enough for that, are still sufficiently interesting that they could be a dangerous distraction to me when I was trying to concentrate on the main task of telling the story of the project itself. If I had included pen-portraits of them all, the book would have become hopelessly unwieldy; I have said as much as I can about many of them, but in many cases there is more to be said. One of those about whom I would have liked to say more is Arthur Thomas Maling, who worked as one of James Murray’s assistants for nearly thirty years, and who went on working on the Dictionary for another dozen years or so after Murray’s death in 1915.

I have rather a soft spot for Maling, probably because of the various things we have in common, in addition to the simple fact of both having worked in-house on the OED for many years. Like me, he studied mathematics at Cambridge; like me, he worked on some of the largest entries in the Dictionary—including the verb “put,” on which he spent several months in 1909, just as I did when revising the same entry nearly a century later—and, like me, he was both a keen pianist and a lover of chocolate: two facts for which we have unexpectedly clear documentary proof, as we shall see. He was one of the longest-serving of all the lexicographers who worked on the first edition of the OED; and, as the work seems to have left him little time or energy for other things that might have made his name, he remains a very little-known figure. But I have become fond of him: fond enough to want to find out what I could about him.

Maling and the OED

There have been Malings in the Hertfordshire town of Royston since the 17th century. Arthur was born there in 1858, the son of a corn and seed merchant, who it seems fell on hard times soon afterwards—he is described as “out of business” in the 1861 census—and who in fact died in 1862, leaving a widow to bring up Arthur and his little sister Fanny. Further misfortune followed in 1870 when their mother died. Despite these difficult circumstances, Arthur managed to be admitted to Cambridge in 1878, and obtained his BA in mathematics five years later.

James Murray photographed in the Scriptorium on 10 July 1915 with his assistants: (back row) Arthur Maling, Frederick Sweatman, F. A. Yockney, (seated) Elsie Murray, Rosfrith Murray. Used with permission.

In 1885 the OED’s first Editor, James Murray, moved to Oxford with his large family, as did some of the rather smaller group of assistants who worked at the Dictionary alongside him. For the first six years of his Editorship, Murray had been based at Mill Hill, then a village just outside London, where he somehow managed to combine the work with a position as a schoolmaster. The move to Oxford was followed by a search for new assistants, and Maling was one of those who expressed interest in the work. He joined Murray’s team early in 1886, and soon proved a valuable addition to the staff. His studies at Cambridge made him well qualified to deal with the vocabulary of that subject; and his musical knowledge—although he was no more than an amateur—seems to have been a valuable contribution to the pool of skills that the Dictionary’s compilers could share with one another (just as we do today). He certainly drafted the text of more than his fair share of mathematical and musical terms. He was also keen to recruit others to help with musical vocabulary: the Musical Times of July 1896 reproduced a letter from him—which must have been written with the approval of James Murray—appealing for “Musical Contributors to the English Dictionary,” who could “do their part in […] making the Dictionary as complete and accurate as possible” by supplying quotations illustrating musical words in use.

In addition to his knowledge of these subject areas, Maling seems to have had a particular flair for words that pose the most formidable challenges for a lexicographer. His work on “put” in 1909 has already been mentioned, but before this he also tackled verbs like “have” and “know,” which have a claim to be even more difficult to analyse and describe. And then there are the “function words”: words whose main function is to express grammatical or structural relationships between other words, rather than conveying meaning. Among the function words which Maling tackled were “that” and “the.” The word which James Murray once singled out as the most difficult in the entire Dictionary was “of”; and for the editing of this entry he was able to draw on a detailed preliminary analysis—covering several sheets of foolscap—prepared for him by Maling. Following Murray’s death in 1915 Maling transferred to the staff working under Charles Onions, the Dictionary’s fourth Editor; this led to his working on another challenging group of function words—the various pronouns and interrogatives beginning with “wh-“. He also did some work for Henry Bradley in relation to musical and mathematical words.

Uncovering Maling’s varied interests

Our knowledge of Arthur Maling’s varied interests beyond his Dictionary work is mainly due to his practice of using waste paper of his own as slips on which to write his definitions and quotations: a practice which seems to have been generally encouraged during the First World War, when paper was scarce, but which Maling continued during the remainder of his employment on the Dictionary. It is through this habit of recycling that we know about Maling’s fondness for chocolate: among the slips of paper used for his work in W are the wrappers for at least five different varieties. He also enjoyed Horlick’s Malted Milk Tablets (or at least had a plentiful supply of wrappers). Other slips have been cut up from the covers of piano music scores, from which it seems reasonable to infer that he was a keen pianist.

Mailing enjoyed Horlick’s Malted Milk Tablets, as suggested from the plentiful supply of wrappers he recycled. Photo used with permission.

A glimpse of one of Maling’s other interests may be seen in one of the few known photographs of him. In the last photographs of James Murray, taken in July 1915 in the “Scriptorium” where most of the Dictionary had been compiled, Maling appears as one of his assistants—and he can be seen to be wearing a small star in his lapel. Taken in isolation, this doesn’t say much; but in fact we know that it must have been a green star—the symbol of Esperanto, which we know from other recycled slips to have been one of his particular enthusiasms. This enthusiasm extended to making translations of contemporary writers: his translation of five speeches by the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond was published in 1935, and his Esperanto version of the hymn “God is my strong salvation” has appeared in several hymnals. He was also the recipient of other published translations, whose covers and dust jackets were added to his recycling pile and are preserved in the archives as the versos of slips.

We can also tell that Maling was probably a man of means. Many of the recycled slips are taken from correspondence with his stockbroker or with the companies whose shares he owned. One of his investments was in the company that became Welwyn Garden City Limited; he also had some interest in another early garden city, Letchworth, as we can see from a scrap of a leaflet advertising “Letchworth Civic Week” in May 1926.

There is some evidence among the slips—in the form of literature from charities—to suggest that Maling had a particular concern for the blind; perhaps he had a close relative who lost his or her sight. In any case, he was interested enough in the issue to acquire some kind of device for making Braille. Not content with writing regularly in Braille by this means, he was also quite happy to create pictures with his machine, which he captioned—in Esperanto. Some of these were recycled as slips, including a remarkable series of images of a biplane landing (or possibly taking off).

An unsung hero?

Maling continued working on the Dictionary to the very end of the first edition. In late 1927, he was assigned to some preliminary work on the Supplement to the Dictionary that would eventually be published in 1933, but in January 1928 his health finally gave way—he had long been troubled by rheumatism—and in June he was pensioned off, only just before the grand dinner held in Goldsmiths’ Hall to celebrate the completion of the first edition. Later in 1928 he was awarded an honorary MA by Oxford University, in recognition of his work on the OED. He died in 1939.

“The beauty of history”—as I heard the comedian and history enthusiast Paul Sinha say as I sat down to write this article—”is that it is packed with untold stories and unsung heroes.” For me, in a small way, Arthur Maling is a bit of a hero; and I’m pleased to have the chance to tell at least part of his story.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords Blog. 

Featured image credit: “Bread taste chocolate” by jackmac34. Public Domain via Pixabay

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