This page discusses some of the individual readers for both OED1 and the 1972-86 Supplement. They include F. J. Furnivall, W. C. Minor and Fitzedward Hall for OED1, Marghanita Laski for the Supplement, and Roland Hall and P. J. Wexler for the 1972-86 Supplement and for OED3.
The Appendix to volume 1 of the new Dictionary (for letters A and B, published 1888) lists an impressive array of external volunteer readers, divided up according to how many quotations they submitted or what sort of other help they offered. More detailed information, collated four years earlier and therefore less complete, is given in a separate document printed in the Transactions of the Philological Society (1882-4: 601-42), entitled ‘List of Readers and Books Read by them for the Dictionary, 1879-1884, with Approximate Number of Quotations Supplied’.
Top of the individual readers named in the volume 1 Appendix was one ‘Thos. Austin’, who had amassed 165,000 quotations. The 1879-84 document referred to above lists a strikingly wide range of works read by him, from Hawes through to the present day, covering both arts and sciences and including fifty volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – a source eventually quoted some 13,000 times. Austin was followed by ‘Wm. Douglas, London’, responsible for 136,000 quotations (many from 19th-century scientific sources), and ‘Dr H. R. Helwich, Vienna’, who had contributed 50,000 quotations (of which 11,000 were for the Early Middle English work Cursor Mundi; see our page 1150-1499 under Period coverage). Helwich also read Destruction of Troy, some Lydgate and Trevisa, and various works printed by Caxton.
In all, the Appendix mentions some 300 readers, including a good number of women and many Americans. James Murray’s eldest son Harold had contributed 27,000, and his wife Ada between 2,000 and 5,000 slips (the same number as the man of letters W. M. Rossetti). Many scholars of the day were also listed (e.g. the Dante scholar Paget Toynbee, responsible for ‘5,000-8,000’). The sisters Miss E[dith] and Miss E[lizabeth] P[erronet] Thompson had been notably productive (15,000 slips) and they continued to help with the Dictionary one way or another (e.g. by proof-reading, commenting on meanings etc.) up to their deaths in 1929 (see further McCulloch 2006).
It can be assumed that these large numbers of voluntary contributors were all economically independent, as well as sufficiently well educated, in order to be able to undertake the work. No doubt their literary tastes played some part in determining the eventual character of the Dictionary, however much Murray, his fellow-editors and his assistants strove to widen the range of sources and supplement the labour already carried out.
Many years later, R. W. Chapman (Secretary to OUP, 1920-42) characterized the most prolific of the first-edition volunteers as ‘a few Heaven-sent enthusiasts [who] produced among them a great deal,’ while by contrast ‘most of the people who were solicited [for contributions to the Dictionary] produced little that was of value’ (‘The Oxford English Dictionary and its (Oxford) Children’, 3 November 1935, OED papers/Revision files). Three particularly notable OED1 readers are discussed below.
F. J. Furnivall (see Who’s who entry here)
Furnivall’s quotation total in 1888 was already ‘about 30,000’. Many of his contributions came from newspapers and periodicals; Murray’s children (who were all pressed into service working on the Dictionary from as young as nine years old) especially enjoyed sorting Furnivall’s slips as they were so racy (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 180). His favourite newspapers included the Daily News (quoted over 9,800 times in OED), the Daily Chronicle (over 4,000 times), and the Westminster Gazette (c. 7,500 times); see Benzie 1983: 107.
Unlike most of the other readers, Furnivall supplied slips continuously up to his death in 1910, and his eventual total was far in excess of 30,000. In one of the essays collected together to honour his memory (Munro 1911: 134-5), Murray wrote, ‘He has been by far the most voluminous of our “readers”, and the slips in his handwriting and the clippings by him from printed books, and from newspapers and magazines, form a very large fraction of the millions in the Scriptorium.’
In 1927, when the Press and surviving lexicographers (Craigie and Onions) were making plans for a Supplement, the slips Furnivall had amassed for this purpose took up 16 feet of shelf space (estimated by Craigie to amount to ‘35,000 slips!’).1 The following year Onions observed that Furnivall’s ‘voluminous mass of newspaper slippings’ were ‘of great value’ in indicating the existence or currency of particular words and meanings (Onions 1928b: 4-5). For more information see the EOED Who’s who entry.
W. C. Minor
The case of Dr W. C. Minor (1834–1920) was very different, and has been written up in a bestselling book (Winchester 1998). A former American surgeon, Minor suffered from chronic mental illness which had apparently been triggered by disturbing experiences in the American war. He moved to Lambeth in London, and in 1872 shot and killed an innocent man while under the influence of some form of delusion. Imprisoned in Broadmoor for this crime, Minor had responded to Murray’s public appeals of 1879-80. The 1888 Preface lists him as having contributed between 5,000 and 8,000 quotations, but he continued to send in many more batches up to 1902 when he stopped owing to ill health. Caught in the Web of Words reports that ‘Dr Minor’s total was only exceeded by that of Furnivall’, and also quotes correspondence between Murray and Craigie in which Murray described the care with which this special contributor had to be treated:
‘In his lonely & sad position’, James told Craigie, ‘he requires a great deal of nursing, encouraging and coaxing and I have had to go from time to time to see him [in Broadmoor]…it has been no light part of my unknown and recognized duties to keep him interested’. (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 306-7)
Minor’s speciality was rare words from his own collection of rare books: ‘so great was his contribution over the years that in 1899 James said that it would be easy to illustrate the last four centuries for these words from his quotations alone, which in that particular year had totalled 12,000’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 306).
Different again was Fitzedward Hall (1825-1901), an American by birth who had worked for many years in India and become a distinguished Sanskrit scholar (he was the first American to edit a Sanskrit text, namely the Vedanta treatises Ātmabodha and Tattvabodha, published in 1852, and during his lifetime gave over a thousand Oriental manuscripts to Harvard University. See further the Who’s who page). In 1862 Hall settled in London, taking up a chair in Sanskrit, Hindustani and Indian jurisprudence at King’s College London and simultaneously the post of librarian to the India Office; he also published a number of works for the EETS. But in 1869 he was dismissed from the India Office, ‘by his own account on the (unfounded) charge of being both a hopeless drunkard and a foreign spy’, and at the same time expelled from the Philological Society (Knowles 2000: 29; the dispute over allegations and counter-allegations relating to Hall’s librarianship of the India Office, now impossible to disentangle, is recounted in acrimonious detail in letters to the Athenaeum of February 13 and 27, 1869: 242-3, 311-12).2
Hall then moved to Norfolk, where he led the life of a semi-recluse, but published a range of philological works on the English language and was persuaded by W. W. Skeat (a long-term associate of Furnivall and staunch supporter of the Dictionary from its earliest years) to read for the Dictionary. He eventually became one of Murray’s most valued contributors – though the two men never met – and is acknowledged as such in many of the Prefaces to the separate parts of OED1 (cf. also Murray 1880: 124n1). Once the Dictionary began to be published in 1884, his service became invaluable. It has been specially investigated by Elizabeth Knowles, who has read through the extensive Murray-Hall correspondence in the OED archives and reports that Hall customarily spent ‘four hours a day…on proofs’ and that ‘for much of the rest of the time, he was reading for vocabulary’ (Knowles 2000: 29).
In 1891, Bradley told the Philological Society that Hall ‘had furnished an abundance of supplementary quotations which have in an extraordinary degree enhanced the value of the Dictionary as a record of the history of words’; in 1892, Murray extolled his labours for the Dictionary in even more glowing terms:
Time would fail to tell of the splendid assistance rendered to the Dictionary by Dr. Fitzedward Hall, who devotes nearly his whole day to reading the proofs…and to supplementing, correcting, and increasing the quotations taken from his own exhaustless stores. When the Dictionary is finished, no man will have contributed to its illustrative wealth so much as Fitzedward Hall. Those who know his books know the enormous wealth of quotation which he brings to bear upon every point of English literary usage; but my admiration is if possible increased when I see how he can cap and put the cope-stone on the collections of our 1500 readers.Murray 1892: 277
This account (like Bradley’s, a report to the Philological Society) makes it clear that Hall’s particular skill was supplementing existing collections – possibly an even more demanding task than supplying quotations in the first place. But Murray’s prediction of the scale of Hall’s contribution was to be unfulfilled: Hall died in 1901. As Knowles describes, Murray subsequently exchanged much correspondence with Hall’s son in an attempt to locate, and then to reference, the supplies of quotations that his father had noted before he died but had not submitted to the Dictionary; it has proved difficult to establish the degree to which these efforts were successful. Hall’s own writings furnished around 520 quotations for the Dictionary, often for abstruse or rare words such as affectationist, chaotheistic, charitarian, clapperclaw, criticaster, decurtate and many others; that there are more Hall quotations from the earlier than the later part of the alphabet indicates that his influence on OED waned after his death. (Further information on Hall can be found in Gilliver 2016 and in his ODNB entry [subscription required]).
Like OED1, Burchfield’s Supplement was dependent on volunteer readers as well as internal staff to supply the quotations from which the Dictionary was constructed. In 1957, when Burchfield was appointed as editor of the Supplement (a venture to be described in later pages on this site), the Assistant Secretary to OUP, Dan Davin, had passed on to him a list of ‘illustrious names’ – distinguished academics, and men and women of letters, who Davin hoped would flood the Dictionary offices with sound examples of valuable new words and uses. In the event, Burchfield found that it was impossible to rely on outside readers who were already occupied in full-time jobs, and turned instead to ‘free-lance readers’, ‘retired school-masters’, and (a new category) ‘the wives of university teachers’.3 As he told a New York audience in 1973, ‘Notwithstanding the change of social climate since the Victorian period, and the virtual disappearance of a leisured or semi-leisured class, some excellent readers came forward’ (Burchfield 1973: 99).
These individuals are named in the prefaces to the four volumes of the Supplement. Correspondence in the OED archives indicates that outside readers for the Supplement were paid at a rate which increased markedly over the years (in order to keep up with inflation): 7/6 an hour in 1959, 12/6 in 1966; alternatively they were rewarded with books.
In his first five-year report to OUP, Burchfield picked out five individuals who had made outstanding contributions to the quotation files:
- Miss M. Laski 31,000 (author & journalist)
- Mr R. A. Auty 26,000 (retired schoolmaster)
- Mrs A. S. C. Ross 12,000 (wife of university teacher)
- Mr W. Kings 8,000 (retired schoolmaster)
- Mr R. Hall 7,000 (university teacher)
Little is known of W. Kings, other than Burchfield’s report in OEDS1: x that he ‘read many scientific books and journals’. R. A. Auty (who died in 1967) was a retired schoolmaster from Faversham in Kent, who undertook to read the entire works of James Joyce, 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). He also read ‘most of the works of T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence…and W. B. Yeats, and runs of many periodicals (e.g. Times Literary Supplement 1930-8, The Times 1958-67, Scrutiny 1932-8, Penguin New Writing (all issues)), works on Linguistics, Cricket, Bridge, etc.’ (OEDS1: x).
Mrs Ross was Stefanyja Olszewska (1907–1973), wife of A. S. C. Ross (of U-and non-U fame).4 A sensitive and learned scholar, she had studied under J. R. R. Tolkien at the University of Leeds (where he was for a time Professor of English), published several articles on Old and Middle English philology, and had read for and worked on the first Supplement in the early 1930s. Burchfield reports that she ‘made a systematic reading of Notes and Queries from 1930 to 1959, The Listener, S[ociety of] P[ure] E[nglish] Tracts, American Speech, and a wide selection of 20th-century fiction’ (OEDS1: x).
The two other individuals mentioned, Marghanita Laski and Roland Hall, were to play a significant role in the composition and final character of the 1972-86 Supplement and hence in OED2.
Laski (1915-1988) differed from the others in being a public figure. As Burchfield later described in her ODNB entry, she was a ‘writer, broadcaster, journalist, and lexicographical irregular supreme,’ moreover ‘renowned’ both at Oxford and throughout her life ‘for her beauty, her forceful personality, and her obsession with religious and secular beliefs’ (on the latter, see the discussion of her work in Carey 2005). After writing a series of novels in the 1940s and 1950s she turned to ‘more thoughtful and literary works’ in the 1960s and became well known as a broadcaster on programmes such as Any Questions, The Brains Trust, and The Critics. In 1958, while ‘momentarily starved of reading matter’, she idly picked up ‘an eight-page pamphlet containing double-columned lists of some 450 words in alphabetical order and running from alabamine to astrophil’, Burchfield’s second public appeal for help with the Supplement.
So began her irresistibly compulsive habit of noting down, in a succession of small black notebooks (some now preserved in the OED archives), any words from her wide range of omnivorous reading that she thought might be useful for the Supplement, or for ‘the Great Jubilee’ (a hoped-for day when a revision of the whole Dictionary might be set in hand), and ‘carding’ the results. She continued to dispatch a steady stream of cards to Burchfield right up to the publication of the final volume of his Supplement in 1986, by which time her ‘extraordinary contribution’ had come to a total of around 250,000 quotations, all copied out in her distinctive spidery script.
In order to flood the OED offices with such abundant accumulations of linguistic booty, Burchfield tells us, ‘she dredged numerous bulky Edwardian sales catalogues for the names of domestic articles, she read much of the crime fiction published in the twentieth century [and reviewed it for the TLS], and she scoured the whole rich literary world of twentieth-century (and some older) books and magazines for their unregistered vocabulary’. Elsewhere he specifies 19th-century works such as the novels of Charlotte Yonge and Dickens as her special hunting ground, along with the letters of George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell, ‘the general field of the domestic arts (old catalogues, books on gardening, cooking, embroidery, etc.) and various modern newspapers and journals (Guardian, Vogue, etc.)’ (OEDS1: x). Laski herself mentions G. B. Shaw, Beerbohm, Hemingway, MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Ogden Nash, John Osborne, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and G. M. Hopkins’s prose as sources read for the Dictionary. One of her special enthusiasms was the writing of Charlotte Yonge; as a result, this novelist’s representation in the OED rose sharply between the first and second editions (see below).
In 1968 she published a series of articles in the TLS on reading for the OED, in which she recounted the delights of ‘treasure hunting with the near certainty that treasure will always be found’. She described her daily trawl through the Guardian, speculated whether the kimono shirt she remembered the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wearing at a student party in Oxford would make the grade along with bush shirt and Hawaiian shirt, reported what was then standard OED Supplement wisdom, that five examples of a new word’s use in printed sources were required for it to get into the Dictionary, listed the words unrecorded in the OED that she had discovered by reading the first edition of The Times in 1788 (‘thanks to the postal strike I had some spare working hours’), and noted how ‘the non-historian can seldom know whether [the OED] is delinquent or accurate’ when consulting it to check the names for historical events, persons, and phenomena (Laski 1968a, 1968b, 1971).
Roland Hall (1930-2018) was another dedicated servant of the OED who supplied enormous numbers of OED antedatings and missing words and usages over six decades of his life. As described in our Who’s who entry, Hall was an academic philosopher who became interested in the OED and its record of philosophical and other sorts of vocabulary from an early age. In 1957 he came across a copy of Burchfield’s first appeal for volunteer readers, and from that date onwards began to send in bundles of quotations to the Oxford office through the post. As he described,
Bob Burchfield must have noticed what I was sending in, and invited me to read systematically. First, he asked me to read Mind [the central academic journal for philosophy], beginning in 1933 (after the first Supplement), and I completed this up to 1951 eventually. I was to look for new words and senses, of course. In the meantime, he noticed other possibilities: William James had not been read for the Dictionary, so he asked me to read him, and I eventually read 18 vols., and a great deal of letters (not all were then available in print)…. I think I pointed out to him that Mill, and then Locke, were not adequately covered in the OED, so I read the whole of both…. Doing all this took many years, from about 1959 (I suppose) until the 70s or so. In the mid-60s [Burchfield] asked me to write entries, sending me packets of material. I could of course draft an entry just on the basis of the material sent, though often I had to distinguish senses and/or find citations of earlier uses, before writing the definitions etc. [Burchfield] was pleased with these, describing some as ‘superb’. I drafted about 400 entries, I think in A-C: for instance, I remember in B doing
- badger game [= ‘an extortion scheme in which a man is lured usu. by a woman (the badger or badger-worker) into a compromising situation and is then surprised and blackmailed by her accomplice’],
- byssinosis [‘a chronic disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation of fine particles of textile fibres, esp. cotton dust, over a long period’], and
- Bronx cheer [‘a sound of contempt or derision made by blowing through closed lips, usually with the tongue between’]
([Burchfield] apologised for sending this type of material, but said B was a very unphilosophical letter!) I asked if he had [the philosophical term] ‘assertion sign‘, and he said, No, make a case, so I sent him eight quotations and he invited me to draft the entry….5 My move to York [University, where Hall had been appointed a Reader, and where he remained until his retirement in 1994] in 1967 cut down on the time available for dictionary work, but I carried on with various projects. I had already started reading the Logic books in English [i.e. books on the subject of logic written by philosophers] from the beginning, and eventually read the first 28…. Subsequently I have been a consultant for philosophical and other words (e.g. in psychology, anthropology, etc. for the OED revision [i.e. OED3].email to Charlotte Brewer, 2011
This account indicates the wide range of editorial input that external volunteer readers could, and did, contribute to the OED at this stage in its history. Hall’s participation in editing the Supplement – including words outside his academic specialism – seems to have far exceeded that of Laski (about whose less scholarly approach Burchfield was sometimes heard to grumble). A proportion of Hall’s erudite, detailed and precise investigation of philosophical lexis in the English language was written up by him as articles, over 50 altogether, published in the periodical Notes & Queries between 1959 and 1999 and consisting in the main of lists and comments on OED omissions and antedatings from philosophical texts by Locke, Hume, John Stuart Mill, and others.
Of course, Burchfield’s remit for the Supplement was to update the 20th-century record of words and senses, not to revise the original OED. This means that many of Hall’s contributions and corrections to the Dictionary were reserved for use in the future and are only now being worked on by the OED3 lexicographers. Nevertheless, Hall’s extensive reading of philosophical works for lexical purposes has had an as yet uncalculated effect on OED’s current, as well as future, content. For example, although OED1 is no longer electronically searchable, sample searches by hand indicate that it contains almost no quotations from William James. The electronic searches that we can make, of OED2 (i.e. the composite version of OED that merges OED1 with Burchfield’s Supplement), turn up 928 William James quotations.6
Most of these quotations therefore, despite their early date, would appear to have been added by Burchfield from Hall’s slips – making William James one of the most cited Supplement authors, along with G. B. Shaw, Kipling, Joyce, Wodehouse, Lawrence, Twain, and Aldous Huxley; see our page on 20c fe/male sources.
This intensity of quotation tells us more about Burchfield’s method of constructing the OED Supplement than about William James’s contribution to the English language, and the same is probably true of the other heavily cited authors: as Burchfield acknowledges, the individual reading patterns and preferences of contributors were often decisive in determining the absence or presence of words and usages in the Supplement. Another example is the heavy quotation in Burchfield’s Supplement of works by Charlotte Yonge, the popular 19th-century novelist beloved of Marghanita Laski – Laski was a founder member of the Charlotte Yonge Society and co-edited a collection of essays on Yonge in 1965, see Battiscombe and Laski 1965. As with William James, there was a big jump in quotations from her works between OED1 and OED2 – see our graph at Top female sources.
Other significant contributors to the Supplement were professional linguists of one sort or another. In his Preface to volume 1 (p. xiii), Burchfield names Clarence Barnhart, the American lexicographer, who in 1958 sent them from his files in New York ‘a set of some 4,500 slips drawn from 1955 issues of The [New York] Times, Science News Letter, and other sources,’ and ‘H. W. Orsman, who ‘presented to us his unique collection of some 12,000 quotations from New Zealand works’ from the time of James Cook to about 1950. Orsman also became a lexicographer, publishing The Dictionary of New Zealand English with OUP in 1977.
P. J. Wexler
Finally, another important reader of recent times has been Peter Wexler (1923-2002). Most recently based at the Department of Language and Linguistics at Essex, Wexler began contributing to OED in the days of the 1972-86 Supplement and continued sending in slips with corrections and additions to the Dictionary’s record up to his death. In the words of the current editor of OED3, John Simpson, ‘He was never an easy reader to have in the Dictionary’s stable. He always asked questions which threatened to reveal inconsistencies in editorial policy’ as well as pointing out ‘typographical errors, blind cross-references, infelicities of definition’. Most importantly, he was an invaluable source of ‘concrete documentary evidence in the form of historical quotations’ (Simpson and others 2004b: 342-3).
He specialized (at the suggestion of Dictionary staff) in the terminology of early science, eventually contributing ‘about 50,000 quotations to the Dictionary, a large proportion in areas from which many previous readers had shied away’. These arrived ‘as regularly as clockwork, on the first day of each month’. His range was nevertheless extraordinarily eclectic, from (e.g.) rare entomological texts to Byron’s Journals. Taking the view that he ‘could find useful material in any book he read’, he was responsible for turning up about 500 first usages to the early sections of OED3, ‘along with many more gap-filling and later examples’. Simpson writes, ‘His desire to extend our knowledge of the language was unremitting’ (p. 342).
Last updated on 5 November 2019
- F. J. Sweatman to Craigie, OED/B/3/2/16(1), 22 April 1927 (OED archives).
- It is clear that (what Hall perceived to be) his pariah-status, following his expulsion from the Philological Society, caused him deep distress. This appears from a letter Murray wrote him in 1899, after Hall had suffered severe ill-health: ‘I have never looked upon the charges to which you refer [as detailed in the Athenaeum letters referenced above], and which arose before I had any position in the Philological Society, and of which I have never cared to get any definite account, as anything but some terrible mistake. I have never ceased to speak and to write of your surpassing kindness to me and your incredible labours for the Dictionary; this I take care especially to do at the Philological Society. Nearly all the old members are dead; probably Dr. F. is the only surviving member of the Council of 1864-70; the new members know nothing about the old events, they know you only as the most beneficent and wonderful helper to the Dictionary; and even Dr. F. always heartily hear-hears any reference to you, and in a sotto voce [sic] cusses the fatuity which drove you from the Society. I have heard him say as if to himself ‘Dash that G–n [i.e. the German Theodor Goldstücker, another member of the Philological Society and its President on his death in 1872, described in his ODNB entry as ‘a biting critic of fellow Sanskritists’], whose jealousy and spleen led us into the mess!’ I am quite sure that he admires immensely your gallant labours – ‘Plucky of him – isn’t it? He’s a rare good fellow.’- those are the only remarks he ever makes about you. You may rely upon me to defend you and your memory…there are not ten men in the world who would if they could, nor perhaps one other who could if he would, have worked with infinite love and labour, as you have done for a work in which your only interest is that of pure and chivalrous devotion….it rises before me as one of the most splendid records of disinterested work in the annals of literature, not its least wonderful feature being the sustainment of interest & work for long years. Many persons enthusiastically begin to help us, and do well ‘for a season’, but when the season advances they “wither away”… (4 May 1899; OED archives, Misc/13/25).
- Information on the Supplement in this page (unless otherwise indicated) comes from documents in OUP/Box OP1713/PB/ED/012870 (OED archives).
- Mitford and Ross 1956. Ross’s sociolinguistic study of present-day English was originally published in 1954.
- Assertion sign went into the 1972 volume of the Supplement, with the explanation that it had been introduced by G. Frege in 1879, supported by five quotations from specialized philosophical sources (1906-53).
- Searching OED2 (a resource no longer available on the OED Online website as of December 2010) on the advanced search page as follows: Quotations containing (“W. James” in author and “1860-1911” in date) and (((“W. James” in author and not “L. W. James” in author) and not “R. W. James” in author) and ((“W. James” in author and not “G. W. James” in author) and not “B. W. James” in author)). OED3 continues to add quotations from James, with a total of 1,136 in August 2018.