Spoof slip for radium

This is a transcription (by Peter Gilliver, taken from Brewer 2007b: 47) of the spoof slip for radium produced by one of Craigie’s team of editors, H. J. Bayliss, radium being a word notoriously omitted from the first edition of the OED. See the original on p. 61 of Peter Gilliver’s article, ‘”That Brownest of Brown Studies”‘, downloadable in our Library.

The omission came about in the following way. In August 1902, while reading through the proofs for the fascicle covering the alphabet-range R-Reactive which had been prepared by his co-editor Craigie, Murray discovered that Craigie had inserted an entry for this new term (the name given to a recent chemical discovery). Murray’s letter to Craigie advising him to take the word out still survives in the OED archives, and you can read a facsimile of it on p. 60 of Gilliver’s article. Murray recognized that Craigie had ‘probably got the opinion of a responsible chemist’, but said that he himself had meanwhile consulted ‘a chemical student who has just taken his degree’, who thought that the identification of this new chemical element ‘is quite premature and may turn out to be a regrettable blunder’. Murray’s advice prevailed and the word was excised from the proofs.

The editor-in-chief’s misjudgement here may well have been a source of mirth among the staff: as Gilliver recounts, H. J. Bayliss produced a sample entry for the word which admirably satirized the forms and conventions their chief editor had so expertly established as the OED norm. (Bayliss is included in the photo of Other editors 1915 – the figure standing at the far right.) Meanwhile, Craigie eventually rectified the omission of radium in the first Supplement to the OED, published in 1933, which he edited with C. T. Onions – the letter r fell in Craigie’s half of the alphabet.

Scientific terms 

It was extraordinarily difficult for the OED to keep up with new scientific usages and to decide which were appropriate for inclusion in the Dictionary. In 1883, the OUP Delegates had insisted that ‘slang terms and scientific words should both be limited to such as were found in literature.’ Murray’s granddaughter sympathetically reports his dilemma:

‘What,’ asked the exasperated Editor, ‘is classed as literature?’ He confessed to inability to give an answer: ‘I could at most omit those as to which I have a strong subjective feeling that they are not likely to be used at present in literature…running the risk that any day they may burst on the world as famous poisons, disinfectants, anaesthesiants, or cholera prophylacts, & so be in every body’s mouths.’

K. M. E. Murray 1977: 221-2

Precisely this fate afflicted Murray with the word appendicitis, an example of ‘crack-jaw’ medical jargon that one of his specialist advisers had warned him against in 1891, but from which Edward VII was to suffer from very publicly in 1902, when his coronation was postponed for this very reason.

We will eventually put up a section on EOED on OED’s treatment of scientific and technical vocabulary; meanwhile see remarks on the importance of science in 1800-1929 in OED1/2, also K. M. E. Murray 1977: 221-2; Brewer 2007b: 200-3; Hoare and Salmon 2000; and Mugglestone 2005: chapter 5.

Last updated on 26 October 2019