Auden in OED Supplement

During the time that Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford (1956-61), he became an acquaintance of R. W. Burchfield, up to 1957 a lecturer at Auden’s college, Christ Church, and subsequently editor of the second Supplement to the OED. A cordial exchange between the two survives in the OED archives, Auden drawing attention to the absence of ‘the adjective unkiss‘ in the OED, which he had found in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives.1 Auden’s interest in the OED may possibly have been a factor influencing Burchfield’s determination to include him in the Supplement; see his references to Auden quoted in our page on The canon.

This page discusses Burchfield’s treatment of Auden in the Supplement, firstly in general terms and then for his Hapax legomena (or so-called nonce-words) and first cited uses. We also look, briefly, at examples of the Variable choice and annotation of Auden’s vocabulary, and finally at Lexicographical loops.

Burchfield and Auden

According to Burchfield himself, Auden several times urged him to insert particular words into the Supplement. On one occasion, he ‘pressed me to include the word disinterested in the “now established sense of “uninterested”‘ Burchfield did so, but called it ‘a loose use’.2

On another occasion, Burchfield was sitting working quietly in his room at Christ Church when the door burst open and in rushed an excited Auden, waving a sheet of paper in his hand freshly torn out of his typewriter, to insist Burchfield should put back into the OED an obscure word in a poem he had just that minute written. In telling this tale – to an audience of historical linguists at a conference in Oxford in 1988 – Burchfield commented, ‘Auden was not a scholar and often didn’t know what words meant’ (see Lexicographical reservations).

Despite his reservations about Auden’s lexical scholarship, Burchfield put considerable effort into recording the poet’s vocabulary. In 1959, two years after his appointment as OED editor (though thirteen years before the first volume of his Supplement (A-G) appeared in 1972), Burchfield reported to the Sunday Times that the reading for Auden was ‘well advanced’ (Sunday Times, 1 February 1959, p. 8). Over the following years, both during and after the publication of the Supplement, Burchfield several times identified Auden as among the major writers whose work he thought should be given special attention, and even indexed for inclusion (see Indexes and inconsistencies).

In the event, Burchfield’s Supplement bears an inconsistent and incomplete record of Auden’s language – though this is hardly surprising, given the problems discussed elsewhere of relying on material sent in by readers, and given that Auden continued to publish new poetry over the time that the Supplement was compiled (so the reading of Auden that was ‘well advanced’ in 1959 would have had to be supplemented every time a new poem or new collection of his work appeared).

The 766 quotations from Auden in the Supplement (or from his jointly authored works, with Isherwood, Kallman, and MacNeice) are for an interesting range of vocabulary, representative of the poet intellectually and biographically. Hapax legomena and first cited uses are treated in the next section, meanwhile other examples can be grouped as follows:

  • Everyday words or phrases, some with US associations (Auden lived in the US from 1938 to 1972): e.g. allotment, clambake, climate of opinion, cocktail shaker, coffee
  • Colloquial or slang words (again, many of US provenance): e.g attaboy, biggie, bot, ooey, orneriness. Bot is a colloquial abbreviation of bottom. Remarkably, the word is illustrated only by quotations from Joyce, Auden, and the child-hood language collectors the Opies: Ulysses: ‘Spank your bare bot right well, miss, with the hair-brush’, Auden’s 1951 volume Nones: ‘The cute little botts of the sailors’, and the Opies 1959 Lore & Language of Schoolchildren, ‘A kick up the bot for being a clot’.
  • Learned classical words: e.g. acedia, agape, agora, ascesis, deus absconditus
  • Scientific, technical, and technological words, e.g. cerebrotonic, cyclotron, entropic, eutectic, monadnock, nano-second, peneplain
  • European loan-words often relating to the arts, e.g. acte gratuit, cabaletta (‘a short aria in simple style with a repetitive rhythm’); coloratura, contrapposto, déraciné, épatant, Geheimrat
  • Dialect words: e.g. baltering, faffle (vb; before Auden recorded only in dialect sources); mim (‘Affectedly modest, demure, primly silent or quiet’); oxter, padge (= ‘pudge‘, i.e. barn-owl); soodling, slubber, sottering (see below on baltering and soodling)
  • Unusual words suggesting abstruse or literary reading and/or individualistic, often learned, usage: e.g. apotropaically (formed from the adj. apotropaic, ‘having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck’); baldachined (‘canopied, covered with a baldachin’); boojum (from The Hunting of the Snark); canophilia, dedolant (‘that feels sorrow no more; feeling no compunction; insensible, callous’).

orgulous (‘proud, haughty’) is an interesting example of this last group. OED1 had recorded the word in Malory and Shakespeare, among other sources, to be revived by Southey and Scott, then picked up by Lytton and the Saturday Review (describing Lord Rosebery). But Burchfield shows that it had a Bloomsbury afterlife in Joyce, Woolf, and Wyndham Lewis before being used by Auden and other writers.

Extract from the OED Supplement’s entry for orgulous, reproduced from static copy of OED2 on OED Online. Click to enlarge

Hapax legomena (or so-called nonce-words) and first cited uses

13 hapax legomena by Auden were recorded in the Supplement, defined as follows: 

  • dispersuade, ‘dissuade’
  • enumer, v., ‘enumerate’
  • ingressant, ‘entering, in-going’
  • metalogue, ‘A speech delivered between the acts or scenes of a play’
  • motted, ‘situated upon a motte or mound’, as in the volume Nones: ‘Do they sponsor In us the mornes and motted mammelons?’ (As OED1 explains, both morne and mammelon are types of hill)
  • neotene, ‘a species (or member of a species) in which the period of immaturity is indefinitely prolonged’ (in Homage to Clio, 1959, and still the only example of a human being so characterised, though OED3 have found other uses of the noun)
  • opera magica (of the Magic Flute)
  • pantocratic (1949, in ‘After Sirius’); OED3 has since found two later examples
  • rassenschander (1937), ‘the violation of the purity of the (‘Aryan’) race by marriage to one of a different race’; Burchfield notes that this is an erroneous form of the German rassenschande
  • solificatio, ‘A radiating warmth as of sunshine’, which Burchfield explains as  ‘An invented Latin word, formed on solific‘, a word which in turn means ‘Impregnated by the sun’ and is illustrated in OED1 with quotations dated 1559, 1650 and 1678
  • sordume, a version of sordun, an early form of bassoon
  • tart, v. ‘to treat in the manner of a catamite or tart; to favour’
  • vert, a., labelled a ‘poet[ic] nonce-wd’ and defined as ‘turning’, in Age of Anxiety (1948): ‘O Primal Age When we danced deisal, our dream-wishes Vert and volant’. The Supplement included the first part of this quotation as a recent example of deisal, ‘righthandwise, towards the right’, which had been treated in OED1. But neither OED1 nor Supplement records the use of volant (‘flying’) as an adverb, as instanced here. 

Auden was also cited as the first user of a number of new words:

  • butch, adjective (as in New Year Letter, 1941: ‘And culture on all fours to greet A butch and criminal élite’); subsequently antedated to 1941 by OED3 in a quotation from Esquire
  • depetal (1936)
  • Disneyesque (1939)
  • entropic (1930); subsequently antedated to 1893 by OED3
  • Mosleyite (1932)
  • numéro (1944) ‘an eccentric or strange person’
  • plain-sewing (1969), ‘applied to a particular kind of homosexual behaviour in which masturbation or mutual masturbation takes place’ (see Lexicographical loops)
  • pot-holed (1933); subsequently antedated to 1874 by OED3
  • Princeton-first-year (1961), ‘applied to a form of male homosexual activity in which partners achieve orgasm by intercrural friction’ (see Lexicographical loops)
  • shagged (1932) ‘weary, exhausted’
  • soggily (1939)
  • spitzy (1937) ‘resembling or pertaining to a Spitz dog’
  • tugged-at (1930); only one further use recorded, from Iris Murdoch in 1962
  • Wooster (1939), as a reference to Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, i.e. an amiable and vacuous young man about town

In some of these cases, as yet unrevised by OED3 (e.g. shagged), it seems unlikely that Auden was really first user. But since Auden was read comparatively intensely by Supplement staff, they were more likely to encounter early examples of a word’s use in his work than in other texts. The same is true of the other sources specially favoured by Burchfield (see 20c fe/male sources)

Variable choice and annotation

The Supplement treatment of Auden was decidedly inconsistent – some words from any one poem are treated while some are not – but often yields interesting information. For example, in ‘Thanksgiving for a Habitat’ (About the House, 1965), ‘X. Tonight at Seven-Thirty’, Auden discusses the ideal dinner-party, to suggest that a group of six is ‘perfect’:

For authentic

comity the gathering should be small…

…Christ’s cenacle

seated a baker’s dozen, King Arthur’s rundle

the same…

..six lenient semble sieges,

none of them perilous

is now a Perfect Social Number.

Burchfield’s entry on siege updated OED1 to explain ‘Siege Perilous’ as ‘the vacant seat at King Arthur’s Round Table which could be occupied without peril only by the knight destined to achieve the Grail’. This is extremely helpful. Under semble (‘like, similar’), he also updated OED1, whose last quotation is dated 1584, by adding this very example from Auden as an ‘arch[aic] poet[ic]’ usage. But lenient in the etymological sense Auden seems to intend here, ‘soft’, is not a possible meaning according to OED, while the most recent quotation for rundle, ‘an object of a circular (or spherical) form’, was dated 1680. (The entry was updated in OED3 in March 2011 and the definitions re-written, with the result that no definition for rundle is now applicable to Auden’s use of the word as instanced here).

The question inevitably arises, impossible now to answer, how Burchfield decided which words from Auden’s poems to treat and which to ignore.

Lexicographical loops

Elsewhere in the Supplement, Burchfield adds quotations from Auden to the original OED entries for the two words baltering and soodling, as the only recent examples of usage. They come from the poem ‘Under Sirius’ (in Nones, New York, 1951; London, 1952), where Auden describes, as a symptom of the ‘dogdays’, how the ‘baltering torrent’ is ‘Shrunk to a soodling thread’. Auden’s use of baltering, following on from a last quotation of 1500 in OED1, is now labelled ‘an isolated later example’, while that of soodling, otherwise only sourced in quotations from John Clare of 1821 and in ‘dialect glossaries’ of 1854 (no quotations supplied), is said to be ‘poet., rare’.

The implication for anyone familiar with Auden’s love of OED is that he came across both words while reading his copy of the first edition, meaning that the words have re-entered the OED as a result of the productive, if incestuous, relationship of writers with dictionaries – a lexicographical loop.

The same relationship surfaces in a chain of quotations buried away in Burchfield’s huge entry for the combinatorial forms of the adjective plain, where he prints a 1969 quotation from a review by Auden of J. R. Ackerley’s autobiography as the first example of the sexual sense of plain-sewing, ‘a particular kind of homosexual behaviour in which masturbation or mutual masturbation takes place’. As shown in the image below (click to read), the next quotation is again from Auden, where he refers to his earlier use of plain-sewing just mentioned. And the third and final quotation once more refers to Auden’s first example and suggests he made the word up (he didn’t, in fact: OED3 has since found an earlier quotation of 1933 from R. Scully’s Scarlet Pansy – but Auden’s remains the only authority in OED for the term Princeton-First-Year, though OED3 cites earlier associated uses of Princeton).

Our image shows two preceding quotations to give a characteristic flavour of Burchfield’s liking for literary quotation sources.

Extract from the OED Supplement’s entry for combinatorial forms of plain, a1, reproduced from static copy of OED2 on OED Online. Click to enlarge

This is a notable example of what Johnson described, in 1747, as a Genealogy of sentiments in a dictionary entry, where successive authors are shown to have meditated on the same subject (albeit, in this instance, a subject untreatable by Johnson in print).

For OED3’s later changes to the Supplement’s record of Auden (reproduced unchanged in OED2), so far as they can be identified, see Auden in OED3.

Last updated on 8 October 2019


  1. ‘He (Silas Taylor) was a great lover of antiquities, and ransackt the MSS. of the Church of Hereford (there were a great many that lay uncouth and unkiss)’, Aubrey (2015), vol 1: 510 l. 11; see note in vol 2: 1433. The word is a version of the past participle unkissed. Burchfield replied to explain that the example would ‘have to go into cold storage for a century or more’, as he was restricted to hunting for modern words and senses for the Supplement (OED archives OED/C/2/1/20). We thank Peter Gilliver for alerting us to this reference.
  2. Burchfield 1969: 68. This sense of disinterested was already in OED, with a first quotation from the 17th-century poet Donne, but marked as ‘obsolete’. Craigie and Onions (in the first OED Supplement, 1933) had removed the ‘obsolete’ label and added three further quotations, all of 1928, without comment. Burchfield added three more, his label ‘often regarded as a loose use’ apparently disapproving of Auden’s endorsement. Burchfield’s strictures on usage and correctness in the Supplement are discussed in Brewer 2005.