Burchfield, R. W.

Robert William Burchfield (1923-2004), editor of the second OED Supplement

R. W. Burchfield on the occasion of the publication of the first volume of his Supplement in June 1972. Source: OED archives

Robert Burchfield was born in Wanganui, New Zealand, and educated at Wanganui Technical College and the English Department of Victoria University College, Wellington (1940-1; 1946-8), where he took an MA with first class honours. During the Second World War he served in the New Zealand Artillery in Italy, and after completing his MA and teaching at Wellington for a further year he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1949. Here he read for a second BA in English, gaining a second-class degree in 1951, and embarked on a graduate degree under the supervision of J. R. R. Tolkien, working principally on an edition of the early Middle English text Ormulum. From 1951-7 he also held lectureships at Christ Church College, Oxford (to which he was appointed in 1953) and at St Peter’s Hall, where he taught Oxford University undergraduates in a variety of language subjects for the school of English Language and Literature.

At Magdalen Burchfield became friendly with the college’s fellow librarian C. T. Onions, one of the two surviving editors (along with W. A. Craigie) of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Burchfield assisted Onions in a number of ways, principally by taking over from him as Honorary Secretary of the Early English Text Society (the body set up by F. J. Furnivall in 1864 to publish scholarly editions of Old and Middle English works, partly so as to provide evidence of early English usage for readers working on the OED). In 1956, when Oxford University Press was searching, with little initial success, for an editor of a projected second Supplement to the OED, Onions recommended Burchfield as a likely candidate and in 1957 he was engaged to produce this work, in one volume, over the next ten years. In the event, however, the second OED Supplement filled four huge volumes and the work took nearly thirty years to complete.

Various factors account for this expansion and postponement. Active OED lexicography in English had virtually ceased in Oxford after the departure of the (effectively interim) editor J. M. Wyllie in 1954, which meant that Burchfield had to pick up the job when the trace had gone cold, with no direct access to OED traditions and methodology other than that he could glean from the aged Craigie and from Onions (who continued to work, rather slowly, on the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a third edition of which had appeared in 1944; the Concise, Pocket, and Little Oxford Dictionaries were still being produced in successive editions, but were edited outside Oxford and were relatively unsupervised by the Press). Burchfield was a trained philologist but had had no previous lexicographical experience; consequently he took some years to ascertain the type of material his Supplement should contain and to build up an adequate team of staff and outside readers.

Following the advice of Kenneth Sisam, the Secretary (A. L. P. Norrington) and Assistant Secretary (Dan Davin) to the Delegates of OUP originally asked for a volume of around 1,275 words, to be combined with the first OED Supplement (edited by Craigie and Onions) that had been published in 1933. Burchfield was to treat new words and senses which had appeared since then, and to give minimal attention to non-UK English and to scientific, technological and literary vocabulary and usage. This specification proved too constrained, and Burchfield vastly expanded the new Supplement’s treatment of all these areas. Moreover, on examining the 1933 Supplement, with which his own was to be conjoined, he had found it wholly inadequate: ‘Subject for subject, word class for word class, the first OED Supplement of 1933 was a riffraff assemblage of casual items, in no way worthy of the magnificent monument to which it formed an extension’, as he later put it; much of his effort thus went into researching and revising lexicographical treatment of this earlier stretch of vocabulary as well as that from 1933 onwards. Additionally, Burchfield’s understanding of the proper scope of his Supplement was crucially influenced by the publication of Philip Gove’s Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961. This excellent dictionary, marketed as ‘the greatest vocabulary explosion in history’, was the first to attempt a policy of honest descriptivism in relation to language, in that it included vast numbers of words used on a daily basis in (American) English that had never before been included in respectable dictionaries aiming to provide authoritative lexicographical treatment of the English language as a whole. As Burchfield himself described, ‘the sheer quantity of words included in [Webster’s Third] made it apparent at once that I had seriously underestimated the task of collecting modern English vocabulary wherever it occurred. The whole editorial process had to be delayed – in the event by several years – until my editorial assistants and outside readers had assembled evidence on this majestic scale’: the problem for Burchfield being that, for the OED, he needed not only lists of new words and senses, but also the illustrative quotations on which the OED bases its definitions. The impact on his plans of this dictionary alone is a sufficient explanation for Burchfield’s protracted delay in assembling, producing and printing the Supplement. Webster’s Third encouraged him to extend OED’s policy not only by including more colloquialisms than hitherto but also by treating many more words relating to sexual and excretory bodily functions than OED had previously contained, along with a range of contentious or disputed vocabulary (for example relating to race), much of which he supplied with explanatory notes or labels of one form or another (rather strikingly, these notes on occasion took the form of opinionated personal statements departing from the ideal of descriptivism to which OED lexicographers from Trench onwards have paid at least lip-service; see further Brewer 2005).

Finally, while working on the Supplement, Burchfield also oversaw the production of a number of other editions of smaller Oxford English language dictionaries, many of which (e.g. the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and the Concise Oxford Dictionary) were edited by former members of his own staff. While this task assured the continued dominance of Oxford University Press as a mono-lingual English dictionary publisher, it siphoned Burchfield’s time and energy away from the Supplement and was, in his own words, ‘a distraction of indescribable proportions’.

Burchfield’s OED Supplement was greeted with virtually unalloyed praise in the main newspapers and periodicals of the day, although some critics questioned his patchy treatment of the technical vocabulary of non-scientific subjects – e.g. horse-riding, cookery, pottery, sports (with the exception of cricket, whose terminology was fully covered), and noted some curious examples of favouritism – e.g. comprehensive treatment of terms from surfing, as against marked omissions from philately (a full analysis of the work can be found in Brewer 2007b). Nevertheless, despite some inconsistencies and local failings, Burchfield’s definitions are precise and lucid, and he treats a dazzlingly wide range of words with admirable thoroughness. His Supplement valuably extended the range of the great OED and provides a magnificent abundance of accurate information about the vocabulary of English of the 20th century. A firm disciplinarian who exacted unrelenting standards of hard work from his staff – and who himself worked punitively long hours for seven days a week over many years – he is remembered with respect by his staff (see the memorial edition of OED News published in 2004), a small core of whom have continued with the Press to become editors of the current third edition of the OED.

After completing the Supplement, Burchfield embarked on an account of English grammar and, more successfully, a new edition (1996) of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a much-consulted bible of prescriptivism on language usage originally published in 1926. This was again well-received, despite one reader suggesting that ‘Burchfield’s wildly descriptionist perversions of the classic prescriptionist masterpiece have assured him a definite place in Hell’. Burchfield continued his predecessors’ strict attitude to correct spelling but (reflecting the more relaxed standards of his time) was more permissive than they on matters of general usage. His numerous other publications included The New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary and a booklet on pronunciation for BBC announcers, as well as a wide range of readable articles on lexicographical, linguistic and usage-related topics (many reprinted in Unlocking the Language, Burchfield 1989).

This is an expanded version of Brewer 2009c, and draws also on Brewer 2007b (where much additional information can be found, especially in chapters 5, 6 and 7).

Last updated on 29 August 2018