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10 things you may not know about the making of the OED (Part 2)

In the first part of this article you may have learned various unexpected pieces of information about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, such as the fact that it came close to being the Cambridge English Dictionary, or that one of the first lexicographers to work on it ended up being sacked for industrial espionage. Read on for more interesting episodes in the extraordinary history of this great project.

6. One OED assistant who fought in the First World War corrected some Dictionary proofs in a captured German dugout.

George Watson was taken on as a member of the OED’s editorial staff by William Craigie, the Dictionary’s third Editor, in 1907 and became his most trusted assistant. In 1917, he left Oxford to join the Devonshire Regiment, and he was soon on active service in France; but he had not left his lexicography behind. He corrected Dictionary proofs at the front, and on one occasion he took this work into a captured dugout—with a pencil in one hand and a candle in the other which frequently had to be blown out for fear of attracting the attention of German aeroplanes: an illustration of just how seriously some of the Dictionary’s staff took their work!

7. J.R.R. Tolkien composed a creation myth for “Middle-earth” while working as an editorial assistant on the Dictionary.

In early 1919, a new face appeared among the Dictionary staff: that of J.R.R. Tolkien, who had studied with Craigie while an undergraduate at Oxford. As the First World War came to an end, he wrote to his former tutor to ask whether he might have any work for him; he was duly taken on, working not for Craigie, but for his colleague Henry Bradley, who at that time was tackling the many difficult words beginning with W, many of which required particular expertise in Old and Middle English—expertise which Tolkien had in abundance. He had also begun to create his vast imagined world of “Middle-earth,” and to populate it with languages and legends. One of the legends, which he is known to have written during his time working on the OED, is “The Music of the Ainur”: a strikingly original creation myth, in which a creator God sings the universe into existence.

Signature of J.R.R. Tolkien from Heritage Auction Galleries. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

8. Hundreds of thousands of the quotation slips originally collected for the Dictionary are now in America.

As the first edition of the Dictionary neared completion, it was proposed by William Craigie that there should be a family of dictionaries which each concentrated on a particular period of English, or a particular regional variety of the language, in greater detail. For each of these dictionaries, it was necessary to start afresh the process of collecting evidence, by the same method of reading and excerpting texts on which the OED itself had depended. It was realized, however, that each of these projects would be saved a lot of effort if they could use the quotations for the relevant period or variety that had been collected for the OED itself (after full use had been made of them). Accordingly, in 1927—a few months before the completion of the last section of the first edition of the Dictionary—quotation slips began to be extracted for the various other dictionaries. Ultimately, five projects received significant quantities of slips from the OED’s files, contributing to the compilation of dictionaries of Middle English, Early Modern English, American English, and early and later Scots, although one of these, the Early Modern English Dictionary, was eventually abandoned. The dictionaries of Middle English and American English were both compiled in America, at Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago, respectively—the latter largely under the editorship of Craigie himself, who moved to Chicago to work on this and several other projects. The Middle English Dictionary was completed in 2001, and the project’s archive—including the hundreds of thousands of quotation slips contributed by the OED—is now housed in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. Similarly, the editorial archive of the Dictionary of American English is preserved at the University of Chicago; however, after the dictionary was completed in 1944, the American lexicographer Clarence Barnhart bought the unused OED slips for American words in the project’s files; these subsequently became part of the “Barnhart Dictionary Archive,” which was recently acquired by the Lilly Library at Indiana University. (The quotation slips for the abortive Early Modern English Dictionary project were returned to Oxford in the 1990s so that they could be made use of in the OED’s own ongoing revision programme.)

9. William Chester Minor was not the only inmate of Broadmoor to contribute to the OED.

Dr Minor, the profoundly disturbed American surgeon and Civil War veteran who contributed so many thousands of quotations to the OED from inside the walls of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, must be one of the most well-known contributors to the first edition of the Dictionary. What is less well known is that at least two other inmates of what is now known as Broadmoor Hospital have contributed to the OED. In 1958, one Arthur Graham Bell, who had been sent to Broadmoor following the attempted murder of his father and two other men, began to send in contributions to Robert Burchfield, who had recently been appointed to edit the Supplement to the OED. He continued to send in contributions until 1966. Less is known about the other inmate, J.B.T. Norris, who began to send in quotations in 1972; his contributions were sufficiently useful that, to his delight, Burchfield sent him a copy of Volume 1 of the Supplement as a thank-you present: a gift which he described as “the nicest thing that has happened to me in the ten years which I have had to spend in this government establishment.” He continued to contribute for over a decade. He was eventually discharged from Broadmoor, and died in 2005.

10. One of the people doing consultancy for the OED today has been contributing to the Dictionary for nearly 60 years.

In fact many people have a record of contributing to the Dictionary continuing over 30 years or more. One early veteran was Frederick Furnivall, who was still sending in quotations half a century after he had helped to launch the Dictionary in the first place; he eventually died in 1910, having clocked up 53 years of contributions. The record for durability may be held by Henry Rope, who was engaged by Murray as an assistant in 1903 (just after he had graduated from Oxford), and who later also worked for Craigie; he left the staff in 1910, and subsequently became a Catholic priest, but he continued to contribute quotations to the Dictionary until 1976, by which time he was well into his tenth decade (he died in 1978). Roland Hall’s involvement with the Dictionary began in 1958, when—like so many others—he responded to an appeal to the public for quotation evidence. He was soon not only contributing quotations, but also acting as a consultant on entries relating to philosophy and psychology (he was a philosophy lecturer at the Universities of St Andrews and, later, York); and he is still a valued philosophy consultant today, nearly 60 years after his first contact with the project.

Feature image credit: “Oxford English Dictionary” by mrpolyonymous. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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