Skip to Content

Books

The Oxford English Dictionary: not just a labour of love, a feat of endurance

Peter Gilliver describes, in searing detail, the meddling, penny-pinching and breathtaking slog that went into making this ‘truly national work’

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Peter Gilliver

OUP, pp.656, £40

What the Great Eastern was to Brunel, the New English Dictionary was to James Murray (1837–1915) — an unequalled task that was his life, and eventually his death. What was later known as the Oxford English Dictionary should be a ‘sweep-net over the whole surface of English literature’, said Richard Chenevix Trench, one of its instigators in the 1850s, to be prepared ‘by reading all books’.

This stupendous aim would have guaranteed its failure had not that hard piece of Roxburghshire granite James Murray set up in his iron Scriptorium at 78 Banbury Road, Oxford, working, working, working, 90 hours a week for years, sifting with a mind full of languages through millions of quotations written on slips of paper in pen and ink by volunteers. Some came to him in bad condition: a sack full of words beginning in ‘S’ had a nest of live mice in it, and slips for words beginning ‘Pa’ had been used for rubbing down horses in Ireland.

Yet the biggest struggle was not with paper but with large human characters mobbing him, as zanies did the Duchess of Malfi. On one side was Frederick Furnivall, whose chief passions apart from words were boating and housemaids. Furnivall had a flawed knowledge of philology but unbounded energy which made him meddle tactlessly and endlessly. This mattered because for more than 50 years he was secretary of the Philological Society, which in theory sponsored the Dictionary.

On Murray’s other side were the delegates of the Oxford University Press, the publishers. They exhibited in its most florid form the defects of management by committee, forever scolding Murray for being too slow or too voluminous, while cheese-paring in a way that robbed him of efficiency. Months were spent quibbling over shares of future profits; but no profits materialised: by 1896, when ‘D’ was done, after 17 years’ work, income amounted to £12,000 against an outlay of £52,000.


Before his move to Oxford, a two-day committee session, thrashing out yet again the guiding principles, provoked by Benjamin Jowett, another champion meddler, left Murray running for his train in order to return to the insatiable task. It was like a waking anxiety dream. Dean Liddell, Alice’s father, no mean meddler either, disliked illustrative quotations from news-papers, demanding ‘as little Daily Telegraph as possible’.

Once settled in Oxford (thanks to the loan of £1,600 from the independent scholar W.W. Skeat), Murray was obliged, because of a neighbour’s objection to the Scriptorium’s appearance in the garden, to sink it two feet into the ground, which made it damp and sent a succession of assistants to their sickbeds. What for us takes a minute to discover online meant for him a letter to a leading ichthyologist or dog-breeder. The Post Office set up a pillar box outside his house specially.

Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer himself, who ten years ago gave us a well-turned volume on Tolkien’s work on the OED, does not limit his tale now to Murray. But he generously testifies to the excellence of Murray’s granddaughter Elisabeth’s 20th-century classic biography, Caught in the Web of Words. He nuances some of her lines of narrative, rescuing an OUP man, Philip Gell, from the role of pantomime villain, for example, and confronting Murray’s touchiness and inability to delegate.

Gilliver leaves a vivid impression of the effects of personality on the titanic task of making a dictionary, which didn’t end with Murray’s death, but, having nailed ‘zyxst’ in 1928, then started again. Many of the best dictionary-makers were, like him, not university men (no college made Murray a fellow), or were outsiders. The brilliant and unflagging Fitzedward Hall, who’d sent in 200,000 historical quotations, was sacked from the Foreign Office, accused of being both a drunkard and a foreign spy. Henry Bradley (1845–1923) had been a clerk at a Sheffield cutlery firm. (It was typical of the OUP to delay a decision on fitting up a bathroom in a house for him, and then vote not to install hot water.) He had been engaged on the optimistic task of writing a popular history of the Goths when he was captured by the dragonish Dictionary to labour in piling up its word-hoard.

Charles Onions (1872–1965, who pronounced his name, we learn, like that of the vegetable, while of course being aware of its quite separate origin) benefited, like Tolkien, from a free education at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. William Craigie (1867–1957), the son of a Dundee gardener, postponed his honeymoon to start work on the Dictionary. Another Scot, J.M. Wyllie (1907–71), took his family to live in a hayloft, was barred from Balliol SCR and wrote an epic in which Kenneth Sisam of the OUP was the Antichrist. Robert Burchfield (1923–2004), a working-class New Zealander, worked under Tolkien on an edition of the Ormulum (which, I think, has never been finished).

When the first part of the Dictionary came out in 1884, The Spectator called it ‘truly a national work’, which was right. Dictionaries are now big business, and management in the past generation or two has sometimes been more despicable than ever. It is pleasant to escape, as Gilliver does at intervals, into the world of words: bogus words such as ‘cherisaunce’ that Murray avoided copying from less careful dictionaries; words that got away, such as ‘bondsmaid’, all written up but inexplicably omitted from Part III in 1887 (not that anyone noticed); words like ‘rime’ and ‘ax’ that took their preferred spellings from a fashion for rational principles.

Gilliver’s prose is a pleasure to read and his research indefatigable. We Casaubon-manqués, with the OED stretched out on our shelves and coiled ready in our computers, rejoice at his big book, little as a Leaf by Niggle (in Tolkien’s allegory) though it may look under the great tree of philology.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close