Herbert Coleridge (1830-61), gentleman scholar and lexicographer
The grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Herbert Coleridge was the first editor of the Philological Society’s proposed New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Together with F. J. Furnivall and R. C. Trench, Coleridge was a member of the Society’s ‘Unregistered Words Committee’ established in June 1857, which led first to Trench’s seminal two lectures on deficiencies in existing dictionaries (in November 1857) and then to the decision to produce the dictionary that eventually turned into OED. He was appointed editor in 1859, the same year that he published his Glossarial Index to the Printed English Literature of the Thirteenth Century (which he called the foundation-stone of the proposed dictionary). In 1860 he ‘prepared a series of rules or canons’ setting out the principles on which the Dictionary was to be constructed; after extensive discussion and modification by the Society these were published as Canones Lexicographi; or Rules to be Observed in Editing the New English Dictionary. He also arranged for a set of fifty-four pigeon-holes to be constructed in which to file the quotations slips that volunteers were now sending in; as K. M. E. Murray points out, ‘some 2500 holes of this size would have been needed to hold the 5-6 million slips eventually collected’ (1977: 136). (The pigeon-holes were inherited by Murray and in 1929 given to OUP, where they still survive, by his widow Lady Murray.)1
In May 1860, in an open letter to Dean Trench, Coleridge wrote, ‘I confidently expect, unless any unforeseen accident should occur to paralyze our efforts, that in about two years we shall be able to give our first number [i.e. instalment of the Dictionary] to the world.’ Clearly this was over-optimistic. But Coleridge was hard-headed in other respects, for example about the quality and commitment of his volunteers, commenting, ‘Indeed, were it not for the dilatoriness of many contributors, who promise anything and everything, but postpone performance indefinitely, neither assisting us themselves, nor enabling us to assign the books they have taken to other and better helpers, I should not hesitate to name an earlier period’ (Coleridge 1860: 78).
He was already a victim of TB in 1858 and only eleven months after his letter to Trench the disease killed him. He died on 23 April 1861, his last bout of illness brought on, so it was said, ‘by a chill caused by sitting in damp clothes during a Philological Society lecture. When he was told that he would not recover he is reported to have exclaimed, “I must begin Sanskrit tomorrow”, and he died working on the Dictionary to the last, with quotation slips and word-lists spread on the quilt of his bed’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 136).2
Last updated on 9 October 2019
- Rosfrith Murray to R. W. Chapman, OED/B/3/2/18, 17 June 1929.
- See the ODNB entry on Coleridge by Edith Coleridge, revised by John D. Haigh, at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5883 [accessed 29 August 2018]; subscription required.