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Learning about lexicography: A Q&A with Peter Gilliver (Part 2)

Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987, and is now one of the Dictionary’s most experienced lexicographers; he has also contributed to several other dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. In addition to his lexicographical work, he has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years. In this second part of his Q&A, we learn more about how his passion for lexicography inspired him to write a book on the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.

What got you interested in the history of the OED?

Working on the OED it’s hard not to develop an awareness of its history. We may be making use of all the modern tools that has to offer the 21st-century lexicographer, but we’re also surrounded by evidence of that history—not least the slips of paper on which people have been collecting quotations for the Dictionary for over a century and a half now, some of which we continue to consult alongside more high-tech resources. But I guess I became particularly interested in the history of the project thanks to J. R. R. Tolkien. Soon after starting work as a lexicographer I became aware that Tolkien was one of my predecessors—he joined the editorial staff for a year or so just after the First World War—and soon after that I realized that there might be unexamined material in the OED’s (extensive) archives that might shed light on this period of his life. (I knew that it was a formative period: Tolkien later said that he learned more while working on the OED ‘than in any other equal period of [his] life’.) Sure enough, there was some fascinating material in the archives. I eventually ended up writing a book about it (with my fellow OED lexicographers Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner), called The Ring of Words.

When and why did you decide to write an entire book about the subject?

By the early 1990s I knew that there was a lot of material in the OED archives that hadn’t been made use of in any of the available books about its history. (The best of these was probably Elisabeth Murray’s Caught in the Web of Words, a superb biography of the Dictionary’s first editor James Murray…but that was published in 1977, which was beginning to be quite a long time ago, and of course it didn’t go into much detail about the period after Murray’s death in 1915.) So it was becoming clear to me that a new, scholarly history of the OED would be highly desirable. But I wasn’t sure that this was something I could really tackle…not until Martin Maw, the OUP archivist, persuaded me that it might be. Soon after that, I put together a book proposal, which OUP accepted.

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“The Professor and the Madman” by Manchester City Library. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Sir James Murray arguably remains the most famous ‘personality’ attached to the story of the Dictionary. How did you come to see him?

The image that comes down to us through those well-known photographs of him, in his ‘Scriptorium’ surrounded by the working materials of the Dictionary, is certainly a rather formidable one. And he’s portrayed as just as formidable, if not more so, in Caught in the Web of Words—which of course was written by his granddaughter. So I did wonder, as I started on my research, whether I might find him to have…well, if not exactly feet of clay, then at least to be not quite the figure he had been cracked up to be. But the more I’ve studied, the more I’ve come to know him, the more I become convinced that he does truly live up to the hype. He was unquestionably the right man at the right time: it’s hard to think of anyone else with a comparable combination of abilities who was available in the 1870s to undertake the editorship of the Dictionary. And hard to imagine that anyone else would have managed to carry it through as he did, with his extraordinary capacity of hard work and his unshakable sense that this was the job he had been placed on this earth to do. OK, so he was notoriously touchy, and almost entirely lacking in the ability to delegate things; but even though I know how much he was actually a part of a team—and he was always at pains to emphasize that the OED was the work of many hands—he really does tower over the first edition of the Dictionary. And rightly so.

What other characters in the story of the OED stand out for you?

Oh, but there are so many! In fact this is one of the things I’ve tried to get across in my book: despite what I’ve just said about James Murray, the Dictionary really is the work of many people, and a great many of these people made an impressive or unique contribution to it, or were simply extraordinary in themselves. Just about all of the other people who have been Editors (with a capital E) of the OED have been outstanding in one way or another, from James Murray right through to John Simpson who retired three years ago. (I happen to think that Michael Proffitt, who took over from him, is pretty outstanding too; but he’s not history yet!)

And of course the story doesn’t begin with James Murray: he was really preceded as Editor by the amazing Frederick Furnivall, who in his own way had just as much energy as Murray—he used to row up the river Thames every Sunday well into his eighties, and founded half a dozen literary societies—but who had such unconventional ways that he drove many of his Victorian contemporaries up the wall. But I can hardly leave out Henry Hucks Gibbs, who simply saved the Dictionary from collapse on numerous occasions, either by lending Murray money when he was desperately short (Gibbs belonged to one of the richest families in England), or by talking him out of resigning as Editor. Or Fitzedward Hall, a recluse who would spend four hours a day, every day, reading the proofs of the Dictionary for something like twenty years. Or Walter Worrall, who was arguably ‘just one of the staff’—he worked as an assistant, first for Murray, then for the Dictionary’s other Editors—but who carried on compiling entries for nearly fifty years, longer than almost anyone else (although there are several other assistants who run him close). Or George Watson, another ‘mere’ assistant who was so devoted to his Dictionary work that, even after signing up to fight in the First World War, carried on correcting proofs—on one occasion in a captured German dugout, by candlelight. Or—more tragically—James Wyllie, who was only prevented from becoming editor of the Supplement to the Dictionary in 1953 by a catastrophic nervous breakdown (in the course of which he believed himself to have been given a divine revelation, as a result of which he knew how to eliminate war, disease, and pain from the world). Or Marghanita Laski, who from the 1950s to the 1980s sent in over a quarter of a million quotations for the use of the Dictionary. You see, the story isn’t short of remarkable people! And all of these are in the book, along with as many others as I could find room for.

Are there any unsolved mysteries in the story of the Dictionary?

How about this one? In the spring of 1899 Charles Onions—another member of the editorial staff, who would eventually become its fourth Editor—suddenly left Oxford, and his position as Murray’s assistant, for reasons which aren’t stated anywhere, but which Murray says in one enigmatic letter (referring to ‘something queer’) makes it unlikely that he would, or could, return to employment on the Dictionary…and yet, before the end of the year Onions was back at work, though now working for Bradley rather than Murray. What had Onions done? Try as I might, I’ve been unable to find out.

What sections of the history were the hardest to write?

I think I found it particularly difficult to write about the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. This was when the OED itself was in ‘suspended animation’: after the first Supplement to the Dictionary was published in 1933, all the remaining staff left or retired, or moved onto other projects, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that serious efforts to restart work. This is not to say, however, that there is no lexicographical activity to write about. On the contrary, there were several projects going on during this time—several different dictionaries, all related to the OED in some way—and it was quite a challenge keeping all these different narratives going, while at the same time keeping the OED itself in focus.

Even trickier, though, was the last chapter of all. This begins in 1989, just after the publication of the second edition of the OED; so the period which it covers falls entirely within my own time as a member of the Dictionary’s staff—and it’s difficult to write ‘history’ about a time which you can remember. It can also be difficult to write about events in which people who are still alive, and in some cases still at work on the Dictionary, were involved. No doubt a later historian, writing from the perspective of (say) a couple of decades in the future, will be able to be more objective—and may be able to draw on documentation that I haven’t been able to consult. Of course I could have decided to end the book with the publication of the second edition. But so much has happened in that quarter-century that I felt I really had to write something about it, even if it’s more of a simple chronicle of events than a history. After all, even that chronicle of events will make interesting reading for many readers.

Featured image credit: Oxford English Dictionary by mrpolyonymous. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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