FJF’s notebook

Double-page image from one of Furnivall’s notebooks

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By 1860, many volunteers had offered their services to read books and excerpt quotations showing how individual words had been used at different times in the language. Scores of documents in the OED archive bear patchy witness to this stage in the Dictionary’s compilation. We reproduce an example on this page from one of Furnivall’s notebooks, an address book dated 1861, listing volunteers in alphabetical order by name, along with the titles of the books they had undertaken to read. Like other of Furnivall’s notebooks and papers it has extensive annotations, additions and scorings out.

The first page of the notebook (detail shown below) lists the Rev. T. K. Abbott of Dublin as the reader who had undertaken to read Tyndale’s New Testament (this is also recorded on p. 20 of the 1861 printed List of books and readers).

On the inside front cover of the book (detail shown below) can be seen Furnivall’s version of the three periods into which the first lexicographers divided English literature in order to carry out their searches for words: (1) 1300-1525 (later 1526), i.e. up to the date of the first printed English New Testament, that of William Tyndale (sometimes spelt ‘Tyndall’); (2) 1526-1674 (the death of Milton); and (3) 1674 onwards.

The title ‘Concise Dictionary’ refers to the plan recorded in 1862 that the lexicographers should first of all prepare a ‘concise Dictionary…as far as possible an abstract of what the large Dictionary should be’ (for more information see the Philological Society’s resolutions recorded in the OED’s Historical Introduction: x, also Gilliver 2016, e.g. 42-43). This scheme was subsequently abandoned.

Underneath appears a list of ‘sub-editors’, persons to whom responsibility for individual letters of the alphabet was assigned (indicated by the capital letter next to each name). These sub-editors in turn managed readers who collected evidence for words beginning with their respective letters (in the view of the eventual chief editor James Murray a ‘most pernicious practice’, since it led to books being excerpted for particular letters only; see Knowles 2000: 32; Brewer 2000: 50). 

We can see that the sub-editor for the letter ‘N’ was Charlotte Yonge, the novelist who subsequently became one of the most quoted female sources in the Dictionary. She was also a cousin of Hucks Gibbs, Lord Aldenham, who played a significant role in the Dictionary under the editorship of Murray (see pages referenced under his name in the index to K. M. E. Murray 1977 and Gilliver 2016).

Yonge’s sub-editing work was subsequently acknowledged in the preface to the first published fascicle of the Dictionary (1884: iii; repeated in Volume 1, 1888: v). Furnivall at some stage mislaid her material and wrote to her to ask whether she had indeed sent it; she replied on 22 May 1877 to say ‘You must have my Ns somewhere, for I put them all into their sacks and sent them back to you I should think four or five years ago’. Yonge’s letter survived in James Murray’s papers and was donated to Girton College, Cambridge, by his eldest son Harold on 5 October 1943, who noted ‘the…letter relates to material for N which Mr. Furnivall seems to have mislaid – not surprising as I well remember how his house was cluttered with boxes and sacks in which the material was stored. It is pleasant to know that when the material was handed over to my father in 1879, the sack containing “N” arrived in toto with the other material’ (H. J. R. Murray to Miss [Helen] McMorran, Girton College, GCPP Yonge 1/20 (pt)).

Other of the sub-editors, or the letters for which they were responsible, became notorious when slips were either lost or not delivered to the lexicographers: for example:

H was allotted, as we see here, to Horace Moule (friend and teacher of Thomas Hardy) in 1862. It was recorded ‘no return’ in 1871, but was eventually found to have been passed to George Perkins Marsh, who ‘had stopped [collecting quotations] many years ago owing to failing eyesight’. In May 1879, having ‘read recently that a lexicographer was going to tackle the Dictionary…he wrote [to Furnivall] to ask where he should send his slips when he could recover them from his summer villa at Florence’.  

G, initially assigned to the Rev. T. H. Sheppard (whose name we see crossed out), and subsequently to a Mr Wilkes, ‘was nearly burnt you remember as rubbish [wrote Murray to Furnivall in 1879] by Mrs. Wilkes after her husband’s death; fortunately she bethought her of informing you first’. The Rev. Sheppard continued a sub-editor under Murray’s regime: in 1888 he is listed as one of the old sub-editors who had ‘retained the material which they had’, in Sheppard’s case for the letters U and V, ‘and are carrying on their work in conformity with our new plans’ (Murray 1880: 130).

Q, given to J. G. Middleton, was only returned after urgent inquiry in 1879. He had moved, and assuming that the project had come to nothing, had left his papers behind him in Leicestershire. He explained how fortunate it was that they had been preserved: ‘Had I been present I think it very probable I should have destroyed the papers….You will find them, I expect, in some disorder as may reasonably be expected after being in idleness for so many years’.

P, marked here as the responsibility of the Rev. Bailey, was subsequently divided into different sections and proved similarly difficult to recover; the Pa portion was eventually ‘traced to a stable in County Cavan, where only a few [slips] survived, the rest having been used for lighting fires’. 

For references to quoted material see K. M. E. Murray 1977: 175-6, while for more information on readers and sub-editors see Knowles 2000, Gilliver 2016, and EOED pages on Reading and readers.

Full double-page image

Double-page image from one of Furnivall’s notebooks. Source: OED archives (OED B/1/2/5)

Last updated on 29 August 2019