Onions, C. T.
Charles Talbut Onions (1873–1965), co-editor of OED1
Charles Talbut Onions was the fourth senior editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and like W. A. Craigie assumed more prominence after the death of Henry Bradley in 1923. Onions had come to work on the Dictionary in September 1895, having been invited to join the small staff by Murray after they had met in Birmingham (where Onions had been working for his external London MA, and Murray had visited to examine in the Oxford Local Examinations). He was then 22, with a not very distinguished academic record (a third-class honours degree in French had preceded the MA), and was ‘unimpressive as a young man’. He used to slip away from Murray’s Scriptorium, the hut in Murray’s back garden at 78 Banbury Road, Oxford, where much of the Dictionary was produced, to turn a skipping rope for Murray’s children, who repaid this kindness by singing ‘Charlie is my darling’ behind his back (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 316). He was given only minor duties until 1906, when, in his own words, he ‘began to be employed on the semi-independent preparation of sections of the alphabet’,1 and (taking much longer than Craigie) became a full editor in his own right in 1914, responsible for the sections Su–Sz, Wh–Worling and the volumes containing X, Y, and Z. As his DNB biographer and Oxford colleague J. A. W. Bennett pointed out, he thus ‘contributed the very last entry to the whole work in the form of a cross-reference – “Zyxt, obs. (Kentish) 2nd sing. ind. pres. of SEE v.” – which he liked to mention as it was taken, because of its position, as a brand name for a soap.’ (Bennett also reports Onions’s ‘almost personal pride in his mother tongue, which he once described as “a rum go – but jolly good” ‘).2 Together with Craigie, Onions was co-editor of the first Supplement of the OED, which was published in 1933 in order to bring the Dictionary – especially its early sections, published from 1884 onwards – up to date with recent 20th-century vocabulary.
In 1918 Onions worked in the naval intelligence division of the Admiralty, taking the rank of honorary captain in the Royal Marines, and on his return to Oxford in 1920 he was made first a University lecturer in English, then in 1927 a Reader in English Philology (1927–49). In 1923 he was elected to Bradley’s old fellowship at Magdalen College and from 1940-55 held the post of Fellow Librarian. It was in this role, after he had retired from Oxford University Press if not from lexicography, that he met and – with his trademark ‘astringency’ – encouraged the New Zealand Rhodes Scholar of 1949, R. W. Burchfield, who came to Magdalen in that year to read for a second BA. As Onions’s protégé, Burchfield succeeded to the job of OED lexicographer in 1957 (in charge of the second Supplement).3 Bennett, also a fellow of Magdalen at this time, tells us that ‘undergraduates and others profited from [Onions’s] constant presence in the dictionary bay of [Magdalen College] library’ (where he ‘wore a blanket round his shoulders, to stave off the cold, for fear that the heating budget should become too burdensome’), and that ‘he was equally at home in the senior common room, where his astringent rejoinders to questions on etymology and English usage were much relished’.4
Onions’s waspishness and occasional querulousness emerge clearly from the OED archival papers now preserved at Oxford University Press. He had the same capacity for mordant wit as Kenneth Sisam (Assistant Secretary at OUP, and, like the Secretary R. W. Chapman, much involved with the planning and production of the first Supplement over 1924 to 1933) but lacked his vigorous energy, while the geniality and generosity often perceptible in the writings of Bradley, Craigie, and Chapman are altogether absent – possibly because he had been kept so long in a lowly position by Murray, and always felt badly treated. Bennett comments, ‘There was something Johnsonian in his attitudes and character (as well as his early struggles). For much of his life he was handicapped by a stammer and he always had a fellow feeling for other stammerers; but he was undemonstrative in his likings as in his religion.’ Onions had ten children and lived with his family at no. 7 Staverton Road (one of the big Victorian houses in North Oxford); the drains of his family on his financial circumstances are several times referred to in the OED archival papers.
Over the lifetime that Onions worked for OUP, he produced a number of ancillary works – most importantly the ‘Abridged’ version of the OED which was eventually published (alongside the Supplement) in 1933 as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a phenomenally successful work. 40,000 copies of this dictionary were printed within two years, and one of Onions’s tasks subsequent to 1933 was collecting Addenda for its many reprintings and further editions. It was particularly useful to those with insufficiently long shelves, or deep pockets, for the full OED, ‘bringing something very like the parent dictionary itself’ into the homes of its purchasers, as The Times put it, ‘for it contains all the features which endear the parent to those who consult it’. (To many dictionary users over succeeding decades, including scholars who have – unwisely – based their work on it, the Shorter has seemed a thoroughly admirable substitute.)5
Onions also wrote more independent books such as a Shakespeare Glossary in 1911 (many times reprinted) and a book on syntax. For decades he laboured on the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology, a work brought to completion with the help of two other Oxford lexicographers (G. S. Friedrichsen and Burchfield) and published in 1966, the year after his own death. It is clear that etymology was Onions’s principal interest and strength: Bennett remembers that ‘he delighted in teasing out the history of such words as “syllabus” or “acne” or Shakespeare’s “dildos and fadings” ‘ (neither of these words was included in his etymological dictionary).
He was capable of a good deal of ill-feeling where his colleagues were concerned. For example, when he was able to point out, possibly with some satisfaction, ‘an error – rather a bad one – in the pronunciation of Natal’, in a Supplement entry for which the recently appointed lexicographical assistant J. M. Wyllie was responsible, he commented to Sisam: ‘No one is infallible, but there is such a thing as invincible ignorance’.6 On another occasion, he had to be pressed hard before he would write to thank an enthusiastic contributor of dictionary slips, on the curmudgeonly grounds that they hadn’t been very useful. ‘The majority of his contributions have been more bother than they were worth’, he wrote crossly to Sisam, ‘no quots., mere references to titles, or otherwise ramshackly.’7
After the Supplement was finished in 1933 Onions continued to be employed by the Press for many years and retained his Magdalen Fellowship until his death in 1966. Burchfield reports his advice on dictionary-making, delivered in 1957, as distinctly admonitory – e.g. that professional scholars should be consulted only when all other sources have failed. ‘They are admirable if asked to criticise a provisional entry, hopeless if asked to do all the work.’ Burchfield was urged to be similarly cautious with his subordinates: ‘You will need one or two itinerant lexical assistants. They must not be men with degrees, or anyone seeking advancement or higher pay’ (Burchfield 1989: 6). As ever during the production of the OED, the fear was that time would be wasted, and money drained away.
Last updated on 9 October 2019
- Onions’s report on J. W. Birt, OED/B/3/2/22, 22 November 1933.
- Quotations from Bennett’s obituary of Onions in ODNB. See full text at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35316 [accessed 30 August 2018]; subscription required.
- Chapman used the term ‘astringent’ of Onions in 1946 (Chapman 1946), to be echoed by Bennett in his DNB entry and later by Burchfield (1989: 194). Burchfield reports that Onions also used the term to describe Murray.
- ‘Blanket’ detail is from notes towards Bennett’s British Academy obituary supplied to him by Burchfield (uncatalogued Burchfield papers in OED archives, 8 May 1979).
- Printing figure from Chapman, ‘The Oxford English Dictionary and its (Oxford) Children’, 3 November 1935, OED/RF, p. 2; The Times, 17 February 1933; on the problems of using SOED as a guide to the history of the English language see Schäfer 1980: 53.
- Several letters survive on this matter, e.g. K. Sisam to J. M. Wyllie, 26 April 1932; Onions to Sisam, 28 April 1932; both OED/B/3/10/4 (1).
- Onions to Sisam, 31 May 1932 (see associated letters), OED/B/3/10/4 (1). The contributor was the editor of publications at Brooklyn Public Library, Louis N. Feipel, who had been put out by the lack of acknowledgement; Sisam insisted Onions should write to him.