Craigie, W. A.

William Alexander Craigie (1867-1957), co-editor of OED1

W. A. Craigie. Source: OED archives

W. A. Craigie, the third of the four main editors of the first edition of OED, was a Lowland Scot born in Dundee, the son of a jobbing gardener (the other three editors, Murray, Bradley and Onions, also came from relatively humble origins). According to his own account, he began his career in lexicography ‘about the age of thirteen, by making marginal additions on a copy of Jamieson’s Scottish dictionary’ (quoted from his speech at the banquet on the completion of the OED; see Craigie’s speech p. 15). Craigie was educated at St. Andrews University and at Oxford, where he read for degrees in Classics and Philosophy and spent much time in independent study of German, French, Danish and Icelandic. After a year in Copenhagen (studying manuscripts and improving his Icelandic) he took up an appointment at St Andrews University. Three years later, in 1897, he was invited by the Press to join the editorial staff of the OED (or N.E.D. as it then was), and began work on an experimental basis at the rate of £25 a month. In 1891 he was made co-editor of the Dictionary (with Murray and Bradley) and he inherited the senior editorship on Bradley’s death in 1925. He married Jessie Kinmond in 1897; they had no children and she worked closely with him on his lexicographical projects (apparently she referred to her sorting of the un-compounds for OED as her ‘war-work’).

The circumstances of Craigie’s initial appointment to OED and of his subsequent promotion were badly handled, so that Murray did not learn of the decisions until after they had been made (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 282-3). Murray’s anger and hurt at the Press going behind his back in this way seems to have coloured his subsequent relationship with Craigie and there is a good deal of archival evidence testifying to tension between them. In 1902, for example, Murray wrote Craigie a ten-page letter complaining, among other things, about his inclusion of terms like ‘railway director’ in the Dictionary (his objection was that the meaning of such compounds was transparent). ‘No part of my work is so onerous and unpleasant to me as that of looking through your copy, which has consumed many many hours of this year,’ Murray claimed. ‘I should be infinitely glad to have done with it…And if you would earnestly set yourself to making my work unnecessary, it might soon be done’. Their mid-20th-century successor, R. W. Burchfield, who followed Craigie’s policy of including as many such combinatorial forms in the Dictionary as he could find, as an end in themselves and deserving of record rather than definition, reports that Onions described Murray’s stance on these and other occasions as ‘astringent’. Craigie, by contrast, was ‘more flamboyant and less economical’. Conflict was therefore inevitable.

But Craigie was both a skilled and highly energetic lexicographer. His later colleague, A. J. Aitken, described him as a ‘tiny Scotsman’, who was ‘quietly dignified, rather reserved, yet unfailingly kindly and companiable…with modest tastes and tidy habits’. He achieved as much as he did by ‘utilizing his time to the utmost, working methodically for most of each day and evening throughout his long life’.1 Three years after his arrival in Oxford, he was appointed to a lectureship in Scandinavian languages at the Taylorian Institute and in 1916 he became the University’s Rawlinson-Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He nevertheless managed to devote seven and a half hours daily to lexicography, and his formidable energy and zest for work made it easy for him to publish and research alongside his Dictionary duties. In 1925 he moved to Chicago, where he continued to work on the OED (finally completed in 1928) and on its first Supplement, though his distance from Oxford slowed both these projects down. By then he was planning a range of additional dictionaries, the so-called period dictionaries, to cover specific areas of the vocabulary in more detail than had been possible in OED itself – Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, Older Scottish, and American English (see Craigie 1919 and Brewer 2007b: 29-30, 75-6). He completed one of these, A Dictionary of American English (1936), and began the second, A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST, published 1937-2002; Craigie edited the first two volumes). He kept up his work on DOST when he returned to England on retirement in 1936 (settling in Watlington, a village in the Chilterns just outside Oxford); at the same time, with the Press’s agreement, he embarked on a second Supplement to the OED. He got as far as the letter C before his work fizzled out, but he remained in frequent touch with the Press and advised them on lexicographical policy in the 1950s when they were trying to decide between further supplementing the first edition or revising it altogether (he advocated supplementation).

Craigie’s industry and achievement were rewarded with wide recognition and a variety of academic honours from different countries, and Aitken judges him ‘the ablest and most productive lexicographer of his time…universally recognized as the supreme master of the art and techniques of dictionary making’ – although he has sometimes been thought the least scholarly, or the least attractive, of the four original OED editors.2 He fell out badly with two of his Chicago associates: George Watson (who had joined OED in 1907, corrected Dictionary proofs at the front during the First World War, and moved with Craigie to Chicago as his assistant while working on the 1933 Supplement), and Mitford M. Mathews (who had also worked on the 1933 Supplement). Both helped Craigie with the Dictionary of American English and both felt that Craigie had blocked their recognition in favour of his own.3 On the other hand he inspired devotion in J. M. Wyllie, another worker on the 1933 Supplement, who had helped him edit his portion of the Supplement (LR and U-Z) and wrote that ‘sweet reasonableness marked all his thoughts, actions and words’ (Wyllie 1961: 291; by this stage Wyllie had suffered from severe mental illness and his witness is not entirely reliable). As amply evidenced in the publishers’ papers at OUP, however, the Press itself – i.e. the Secretary and Assistant Secretaries R. W. Chapman and Kenneth Sisam – valued Craigie more for his ‘marvellous executive efficiency’ – his ability to manage his staff and to get good quality work done within a reasonable time-frame.

For more on Craigie’s work on OED see Brewer 2007b.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. See the ODNB entry on Craigie by A. J. Aitken at [accessed 30 August 2018]; subscription required. Aitken took over the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue from Craigie after his death in 1957.
  2. The former editor of OED3, John Simpson, has ‘always felt [Craigie] was the most unsympathetic….It is difficult to track characteristics of his personal style in smaller entries, as they are likely to have been drafted by his more junior colleagues. The main point we notice is that he had a tendency to prefer splitting what Murray would have seen as complex single meanings into several sub-senses, and to structure large entries by grammar or syntax (e.g. by transitivity). This latter is not a policy Murray or OED3 follows’ (personal communication to Charlotte Brewer).
  3. For a full account of this affair see Adams 1998 and Mathews 1985. Mathews published A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles in 1951.