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Walter W. Skeat and the Oxford English Dictionary

For many years, I have been trying to talk an old friend of mine into writing a popular book on Skeat. A book about such a colorful individual, I kept repeating, would sell like hotcakes. But he never wrote it. Neither will I (much to my regret), but there is no reason why I should not devote another short essay to Skeat. In 2016, Oxford University Press published Peter Gilliver’s book The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a work of incredible erudition. Skeat is mentioned in it many times, and I decided to glean those mentions, to highlight Skeat’s role in the production of the epoch-making work.

Twenty-six years separated the day on which the idea of the dictionary was made public and the appearance of the first fascicle. Countless people contributed to the production of the OED, but the public, if it knows anything about the history of this project, has heard only the name of James A. H. Murray, its first and greatest editor. This is perhaps as it should be, but in the wings we find quite a few actors waiting for broader recognition. One of them is Walter W. Skeat, a man of incredible erudition and inexhaustible energy. I have lauded him more than once (see, for example, the post for November 17, 2010, reprinted in my book Origin Uncertain.). However, today I’ll use only the material mentioned in or suggested by Peter Gilliver.

Walter W. Skeat
Image by Elliot & Fry, Cassell’s Universal Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Skeat was not only the greatest English etymologist of his time (in a way, I think, of all times, despite the progress made by this branch of linguistics since 1912, the year he died). In 1873, he also founded the English Dialect Society and remained active in it as secretary and later director until 1896 (in 1897, after fulfilling its function, the society was dissolved). He edited the numerous book-length glossaries published by the society; attended its meetings wherever they were held, and without him Joseph Wright’s work The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905), still a source of inspiration to students of English, would probably not have been completed.

Among very many other things (!), he was a founding member of The Early English Text Society, and in 1865, he became a member of its committee. Neither post was “ceremonial,” for it presupposed a lot of work. Last but not least, Skeat was a generous man, a rare quality in scholars. For instance, he contributed a large sum of money to the Dialect Society at its inception, and much earlier, in 1885, he loaned Murray £1,660 for the purchase of a house in Oxford, the location of the future famous Scriptorium. Curiously, to this day, it is often the philanthropists who subsidize historical linguistics.

In the early eighteen-seventies, some influential people suggested that Skeat should become the main figure in the production of what became the OED. Fortunately, he concentrated on editing medieval texts and writing his etymological dictionary. He would not have become a second Murray, but by way of compensation, no one else would have done so much for the study of word origins and early English literature. Amazingly, Murray, a wonder of erudition, had little formal education and no university degree, while the Reverend Skeat’s background was in the classics. As individuals, Skeat and Murray represented different psychological types. Skeat was impatient and ready to bring out a book, not yet quite perfect, in the hope of a revised version. He would have been satisfied with a much smaller OED, while Murray made no concessions to haste (his invariable goal was absolute perfection, a wagon hitched to a star) and advised Skeat to wait for the completion of the OED before publishing his etymological dictionary. Fortunately, his suggestion fell on deaf ears, but Skeat’s readiness to agree that the text of the OED might be shortened infuriated Murray. (The episode was the result of a misunderstanding, and Skeat apologized.)

At that time, all thick dictionaries appeared in fascicles, which presupposed a good deal of competition among the lexicographers, the more so as a relatively small circle of publishers was involved. The people whom we know only from the names on the covers of their works were often not only colleagues and even friends but also rivals. At a certain moment, Skeat concluded that the Clarendon Press had declined to take on the OED and turned to the Press with an offer of his own etymological dictionary. As it happened, the two projects ran concurrently and did not get into each other’s way. Skeat’s work appeared in 1882, two years before the first fascicle of the OED came out. Murray once commented on Skeat’s dependence on the research at the OED, but Skeat responded rather testily that the OED had also had access to his findings. Yet Skeat remained Murray’s trusted friend and often maneuvered among various projects, to prevent other publishers from interfering with the OED. Though also hot-tempered, he was more diplomatic than Murray, and the relations between the two men remained friendly and even warm for years. To James Murray, Skeat’s death in 1912 was a heavy blow. He survived Skeat by three years. (Skeat: 1835-1912, Murray: 1837-1915.)

Throughout his life, Skeat supported the OED by his reviews (today it seems incredible that once not everybody praised Murray’s work) and kept chastising his countrymen for their ignorance and stupidity when it came to philology. He never stopped complaining that people used to offer silly hypotheses of word origins, instead of consulting the greatest authority there was. He also tried to encourage Murray, who often felt exhausted and dispirited. This is the letter he wrote to Murray, when he was working on cu-words: “I could find enough talk to cumber you. You could come by a curvilinear railway. Bring a cudgel to walk with. We will give you culinary dishes. Your holiday will culminate in sufficient rest; we can cultivate new ideas, & cull new flowers of speech. We have cutlets in the cupboards, & currants, & curry, & custards, & (naturally) cups. […] Write & say you’ll CUM!” Nor did Skeat stay away from the least interesting part of the work connected with the OED and often read the proofs of the pages before they went into print.

Frederick James Furnivall
Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Gilliver states that Skeat’s support for the Dictionary and its editors in so many ways places him alongside Furnivall and Henry Hucks Gibbs. Gibbs was “a wealthy merchant banker (and director of the bank of England) who would go on to become one of the Dictionary’s greatest supporters… He had been reading for the Dictionary at least since July 1860.” And the somewhat erratic Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910) earned fame as a central figure in the philology of his day, even though today only specialists remember him.

A picture of Furnivall can be seen on p. 12. Gibbs appears sitting in a comfortable armchair on p. 43, and on p. 67, an entry for rebeck “a rude kind of fiddle” (among other senses), subedited by Skeat, is photographed. Quite a few more bagatelles of this type can be produced by an attentive reader of Peter Gilliver’s monumental book, but for the moment, I’ll stay with Skeat.

Header: 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. Reproduced by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press.

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