Lexicographical reservations

Instances of words used by creative writers and poets, although one of the main quotation sources for the OED, are often difficult to define precisely and comprehensively. Such authors often use language in ways which are context-dependent on the one hand (responding to local requirements of rhyme, rhythm, imagery etc), and polysemous on the other (the reader is expected to summon to mind a wide range of possible connotations). The ‘logical conflict’ is identified by Auden and C. Day-Lewis, and remarked on by many literary commentators, for example William Empson (see Connotation vs. denotation in the present section of the site). The OED lexicographers themselves have on occasion expressed frustration at the practical difficulties of dealing with poets’ choice of language; this page gives brief examples of different categories of comment or treatment in the making of OED1, the Supplement and OED3.1


A number of letters to individual writers and poets survive from the first chief editor, James Murray, inquiring what precisely they had meant when they had used a particular word. The replies were not always helpful. Answering a query about the meaning of thwarteous, a word he had used in his drama ‘The Christian Captives’ in 1886, Robert Bridges told Murray,

As I remember nothing about this word I think it best to say nothing….As soon as I had finished [the play] I began something else, and have scarcely thought of it again. Whether I coined the word or found it I cannot say.

Murray Papers, 12 Jan 19122

George Eliot, on the other hand, explained that ‘she had used the word adust in [her novel] Romola for dusty because it suited the rhythm of her prose’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 300).

It is not surprising if Murray was sometimes sceptical of the value of such testimony. He complained to one of his sons that the poet Robert Browning ‘constantly used words without regard to their proper meaning’, and ‘added greatly to the difficulties of the Dictionary’. Browning had earlier told Murray ‘that he found the Dictionary “most delightful” and intended to read every word of it’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 235; cf. Fowler 1998).

Responding to an inquiry about the meaning of the word voidee cup in a work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s (‘Then he called for the Voidee-cup: And as we heard the twelfth hour strike, There by true lips and false lips alike Was the draught of trust drained up’), Murray told his correspondent, ‘I see no trace of Rossetti’s phrase in English of any age, and I suppose he invented it himself.’3 After some guesses at how Rossetti might have arrived at the phrase, deriving it perhaps from Old French, he continued,

One must not take the language of poets too seriously. One cannot now ask Rossetti where he got it or how he coined it; but if I may infer from the results of appealing to other poets for explanation of their cruces, he would probably say ‘I have really forgotten; I was under the impression that I had seen or heard it somewhere; can I have been under a misapprehension? what terrible people you dictionary fellows are, hunting us up about every word; you make life a burden.’ That is the general sort of answer one gets, which means ‘we write for amusement, & not to be studied as texts; if you will make school-texts of us, yours be the responsibility!’ I believe Browning once answered a request for explanation of a passage, with ‘I really do not know; ask the Browning Society!’ I know he once confessed ignorance to me of the meaning of one of Mrs B’s lines.

Murray Papers, 8 March 19014


Similar scepticism was on occasion shown by the Supplement editor Robert Burchfield towards the competence of writers in their use of language. For example, he said of T. S. Eliot’s use of the word opherion in a draft of The Waste Land,

It would appear that Eliot’s word is simply an error for orpharion, a large musical instrument of the lute kind, much used in the seventeenth century. It is a classic example of the kind of linguistic flaw found in the work of most major writers.

Burchfield 1989: 70

On another occasion, addressing an audience of historical linguists at a conference in Oxford in 1988 (at which the author was present), Burchfield remarked that ‘Auden was not a scholar and often didn’t know what words meant’.


The present-day lexicographers tend not to express their thoughts and feelings about their sources so openly – and nor have the OED revisers as yet set down a rationale for their choice of quotations, in particular (eccentric) literary ones. Occasional editorial notes may indicate some reservation in the representativeness of a literary source, however. For example, the revised entry for pamphract, a word identified as an adjective in OED1 (published in 1904 and reproduced without change in OED 1989), now supplies a new sense as a noun, evidenced by a single quotation from the poet Hugh MacDiarmid:

1934   ‘H. MacDiarmid’ Stony Limits 24   No more than a rattle of broken bones On the invisible pamphract of God.

The definition reads, ‘Armour, protective covering’ and a note adds, ‘The poem from which the quot. 1934 is taken contains numerous rare, stylized, archly literary words, chiefly of Greek origin.’ No further comment is offered – and as of 6 August 2019, no such note accompanies the other 21 words cited from this same source, many of which appear equally ‘stylized and highly literary’.

One likely explanation for this is that policy and practice on the inclusion and treatment of literary quotations and literary sources more generally in OED3 is evolving, and under these circumstances consistency of treatment is likely to vary.5

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. Material on this page is drawn from Brewer 2007b: 195-6, Brewer 2010a: 111, and Brewer 2019 (forthcoming).
  2. Murray put thwarteous in OED nevertheless, having found a second quotation for it in addition to that of Bridges, and defined the word to mean ‘perverse, contrary’.
  3. Rossetti had used the term in ‘The King’s Tragedy: James I of Scots’ (Rossetti 1881: 129), and it is also found in William Morris’s Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (Morris 1895: vol 2 p. 205), in both cases to refer to a ceremonial cup passed around at the end of a feast in a lord’s hall.
  4. Murray’s fellow-editor W. A. Craigie revised Murray’s judgement and included an entry for voidee in the Visor-Vywer fascicle of the OED, published five years after Murray’s death in 1920, defining it as ‘a collation consisting of wine accompanied by spices, comfits, or the like, partaken of before retiring to rest or the departure of guests…’. Craigie was able to illustrate the word with quotations from Chaucer up to the mid-17th century, along with this very instance from Rossetti (1881) as an example of an ‘attributive’ use.
  5. The original OED1 entry for pamphract (noun) defined the word to mean ‘Completely covered or protected, as with a coat of mail’ and provided no quotations, simply the comment ‘In recent Dicts.’ The OED3 entry (as of 6 August 2019) now supplies two quotations for the noun, one from the 1890 Century Dictionary and one from a poem by W. P. Turner of 1955.