Joyce in Zürich, in 1915. Source: Wikipedia

This page is in preparation, due for completion over 2020. Presently it contains notes on the Supplement‘s and OED3‘s treatment of Joyce.

Both Burchfield’s OED Supplement and the new OED revision have devoted a great deal of attention to recording Joyce’s vocabulary. For his part, Joyce was an avid reader of dictionaries. The Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid was ‘enormously struck by the resemblance—the moral resemblance—between Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language and James Joyce’s Ulysses”, and his 1955 memorial to Joyce advocated ‘adventuring in dictionaries … Among the débris of all past literature/And raw material of all the literature to be’ (MacDiarmid 1943: 225; 1993-4: 738, 735).

Some summary information follows below, partly drawn from Brewer 2010a: 120-24. See also the ongoing notes ‘Comings and goings: Joyce’s words in the Oxford English Dictionary, on Joyce’s record in OED, written by John Simpson, former chief editor, at James Joyce Online Notes [both pages accessed 12 August 2019], and Simpson’s book contribution ‘”And words. They are not in my dictionary”: James Joyce and the OED‘ (Simpson 2016).


Burchfield quoted Joyce around 1,670 times in the Supplement, often for abstruse or eccentric vocabulary. The main initial volunteer reader was R. A. Auty (who died in 1967) a retired schoolmaster from Faversham in Kent, who undertook to read Joyce’s entire works, making an exception only to Finnegans Wake. ‘Like a medieval scribe,’ Burchfield said later, ‘he copied in his own handwriting many thousands of 6 x 4 inch slips on which he entered illustrative examples for any word or meaning that occurred in Joyce and was not already entered in the Dictionary’ (Burchfield 1989: 8).

Joyce provides the only recent examples for many of the resulting Supplement entries. For example, he is the only cited source since 1656 and 1668 for the word peccaminous, meaning ‘Full of sins, sinful’:

A volume of peccaminous pornographical tendency entitled Sweets of Sin

Ulysses 1922


To put off the barcelonas from their peccaminous corpulums

Finnegans Wake (1939)

Burchfield added an editorial note to the entry to say ‘It is the kind of word that Joyce may have picked up from the O.E.D.’ – though the OED3 revisers have subsequently found a later quotation from the Harvard Review of 2003. They have also deleted Burchfield’s note from their new version of the entry.


At the start of the OED3 revision the lexicographers poured additional quotations from Joyce into the Dictionary, adding over 650 new examples of his usage over 2000-2010 to increase his total quotations in OED to 2,311. However, they have since slowed down. Only 161 new quotations were added between 2010 and June 2019, when the OED Online list of most quoted sources gave Joyce’s total as 2,472. This significant change is explained as follows by the former chief editor of the OED, John Simpson:

The ability of the [OED3] dictionary editors to search instantaneously through enormous swaths of online historical text helps to explain why Joyce’s first-use count is dropping [in the OED3 revision]. But another factor is Joyce’s method of composition: whereas he was previously regarded as extraordinarily innovative lexically (even in the years before Finnegans Wake), there is now a widespread appreciation that he actively sought out the ephemeral language of his time – and particularly of Dublin in his time – copying excerpts into his notebooks and assimilating these into his works. It is not surprising, then, that the OED’s editors are now able to rediscover for themselves some of this hidden layer of language into which Joyce tapped. The result may well be that Joyce’s first-use count [as recorded in the OED] is – for reasons such as this – dropping faster than is that of many other high-profile writers of the past.

Simpson, ‘Comings and goings: Joyce’s words in the Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 19 August 2019]

Last updated on 13 July 2020