Auden in OED3

Despite Auden’s own passion for the OED, the OED3 revisers have devoted much less attention to his vocabulary than to Joyce’s, as described on the next page (Joyce). By December 2010, when the first version of the OED Online list of ‘Top 1000 sources in the OED’ was published, Auden’s total stood at 794, less than 30 more than the OED2 total (carried over from the Supplement) of 766 quotations. The most recent version at the time of writing (June 2019) reports a lower total of 780 (see image below), indicating that his quotations have been culled.

Now that the OED website has taken down public access to the electronic version of OED2 we cannot identify which quotations have been added or removed or how, in general, Auden’s record in the OED is changing in OED3. The account of OED3’s revisions to Auden’s vocabulary up to 2008 or so in Brewer 2010a: 118-20 therefore remains the only guide to the changes so far, and is reproduced in the extract from the article below.

Meanwhile, the ‘Top 1,000 sources’ in OED Online, updated to June 2019, tells us that 20 of Auden’s OED quotations provide first evidence of a word – almost the same list as in Burchfield’s Supplement – while 106 provide first evidence of a particular meaning of a word. The lists can be downloaded, but to read the quotation in full and to research further, each must be individually clicked on. Only then is it possible to see whether or not the entry in question has been revised between OED2 and OED3 and represents the fruit of new research.

OED Online entry for Auden in list of ‘Top 1000 sources in the OED’, updated June 2019. Source: screenshot from OED Online. Click to enlarge

Extract from Brewer 2010a: 118-20 on OED3’s changes to the Auden record

Comparing the figures for quotation from Auden between OED2 and OED3 would seem to tell one that little additional work has been done on Auden by the current revisers of the dictionary: the 766 quotations have expanded to 774.1 But the numbers seriously mislead: many quotations have been omitted (e.g. for
madam, Matric, Minotaur, Mittel-Europa, monolith and others), and consequently
far more than eight added (e.g. for maltalent, megrim, menalty, metronome, middle
earth, midwife, might-have-been, mild, Millerite, mimesis
). Two of these, maltalent, ‘an ill-tempered person’, and menalty, ‘the middle class (of society’) are new examples
of what one might call Auden’s ‘dictionary usage’, and OED3 clearly identifies them as such with a note suggesting that they have been ‘revived by W. H. Auden from dictionary record.’

One gets the same initially misleading results if one searches OED2 and OED3 to compare the number of words for which Auden is the first cited example: 22 in each case. But changes have taken place in this list too. Auden’s 1959 use of neotene (describing a human being who retains juvenile characteristics in later life), a hapax legomenon in OED2, has been extensively contextualised in OED3 with scientific examples, both earlier and later, referring to animals, while numéro (as in ‘George, you old numéro’), has been antedated from Auden’s example of 1944 to one of 1924. Consequently both terms have lost the individualistic status given them in Burchfield’s Supplement. To compensate, OED3 now has Auden down as the only person to use the term opera magica (‘Opera with a fantastic or supernatural subject’), and the first person to use unseasonal in the sense ‘Not in accordance with, the time or occasion, untimely’ – a now unexceptional usage. Both these latter examples had escaped Burchfield altogether.2

However, there are still words in Auden’s poems that go unexplained in the alphabet-range so far treated by OED3, e.g. mawk, as in ‘Lip-smacking Imps of mawk and hooey Write with us what they will’ – though Burchfield included this very quotation in OED s.v. hooey, where it remains.3 And the revisers have passed over a number of opportunities to record Auden’s revived use of words or senses whose latest date in OED3 is given as nineteenth century or earlier: e.g. the noun manage (as in ‘the carnal territory/allotted to my manage’) last instanced in OED3 in 1756, or the verb mew (‘shut away, confine’, as in ‘In barrels, bottles, jars, we mew her [Mother Earth’s] kind commons’), last instanced – in R. Browning – in 1887. Whether OED3 will include the host of other Auden words, or Auden resurrections, at present missing from OED over the alphabet-stretch remaining to be revised – e.g. eutrophied, false (vb.), fit-sides, flosculent, frauded, halcyoned, rundle ‘object of circular form’ and many others – we must wait and see. It is dfficult not only to predict whether they will, but to judge whether they should. It is surely impossible for this dictionary to record every individualistic usage, however interesting and deserving of merit, from literary writers, even great ones like Auden – or is it? The OED3 lexicographers themselves need to spell out their policy in this respect, and their reasons for favouring one usage (and one writer) over another.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. A number of these are from works written jointly with Isherwood, Kallman and MacNeice.
  2. opera magica is supported with two quotations, 1956 (written with Kallmann) and 1962. This sense of unseasonal, i.e. to mean ‘unseasonable’, was first recorded in the OED Additions volume of 1997 (J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner and M. Proffitt, OED Additions Series, Vols 1-3 (Oxford, 1993-7).
  3. From ‘The Cave of Making’; the word perhaps means mawkishness. Fuller, W.H. Auden: A Commentary (London, 1998) discusses the imps but does not explain further (p. 488).