Sisam, Kenneth

Kenneth Sisam (1887-1971), Assistant Secretary and Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press

Sisam in retirement at his home in St Mary’s, Scilly Isles. Photo taken in 1959 by the Middle English philologist T. F. Mustanoja, now in possession of Celia Sisam

Kenneth Sisam was born in rural New Zealand and as a boy read the original instalments of the OED as they came out. He gained a BA and MA from Auckland University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, in 1910. Here he embarked on a B.Litt. degree, but proved so useful an assistant to A. S. Napier, who held the senior chair in the English Faculty, that he began lecturing on Old and Middle English while still a student. Another Oxford medievalist and OED lexicographer, J. R. R. Tolkien, considered himself fortunate to have attended Sisam’s lectures and later contributed a glossary to the work for which Sisam was best known, Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (an anthology familiar to generations of Oxford English undergraduates who had to study it as a compulsory set-text).1 An operation for appendicitis in 1912 left Sisam unfit for military service and in 1915 he joined Oxford University Press as a lexicographer, working on the OED under Murray‘s co-editor Henry Bradley, and combining this with the university duties that he took over at Napier’s death in 1916. In 1917 Sisam moved to London to work at the Ministry of Food, but in 1922 was lured back to the Press to take up the post of Assistant Secretary rather than lexicographer. He worked harmoniously with R. W. Chapman over the next twenty years, succeeding him as full Secretary in 1942 when Chapman had to step down owing to illness. The OED archives preserve many hundreds of documents from this period, often day-to-day office memos between these two senior officers of the Press, from which it is possible to reconstruct the chequered fortunes and progress of the OED from 1924 to 1933 and then during the war and post-war years (as related in Brewer 2007b).

Like Chapman, Sisam took great personal as well as professional interest in the Dictionary, and archival documents record many discussions between publishers and lexicographers of the meanings and derivations of words and their appropriate lexicographical treatment – the status of the word forward as a euphemism for bacon ‘in rather advanced condition (but not bad)’, the appropriateness of including the term lesbian, or Fianna Fail, in the 1933 Supplement (neither term got in), the correct derivation of the term plus-fours, and so on (for these and other examples see Brewer 2007b).

Sisam’s psychological makeup, so his Press protégé and compatriot D. M. Davin thought, had been crucially influenced by the experiences of his native New Zealand, much of it in the bush, during the first twenty-three years of his life. Apparently he used to say that ‘the habits of Press authors with their manuscripts put him in mind of his uncle’s dog who went to sleep in the bush, instead of bringing the cattle home’ (Ker 1972: 410-11). Certainly he took a stiff view on punctuality and the need to keep to clearly established time schedules: it was he much more than Chapman who applied the rod to the surviving OED1 lexicographers Onions and Craigie as they worked on the 1933 Supplement, assuming the role of civil servant to Chapman’s government minister (a relationship suggested by Sutcliffe: 198).

Once the avowedly ‘scratch’ Supplement was completed in 1933, Sisam (like Chapman) continued to note words and usages, both current and historical, that would be of use in the future, when OED came to be supplemented again or perhaps altogether revised. He also played a major part in formulating the Press’s post-OED lexicographical strategy, which was to promote the publication of the highly profitable smaller Oxford dictionaries (the Shorter, Concise, Little and Pocket Oxford Dictionaries) in order to maintain Oxford’s prominent lexicographical profile. Retiring to the Scilly Isles in 1948, having steered OUP through some of its most difficult years during and after the war, Sisam produced further distinguished academic work as well as continuing to exercise his powerful influence over the Press, whether through letters or through invitations to stay with him in his island retreat. In particular, Sisam’s advice in 1952 that the Press should produce a second supplement to the original edition of the OED, instead of embarking on a large-scale revision of the entire dictionary, proved decisive. As always, Sisam’s view was that the lexicographers needed to be kept under ruthless control: ‘Only the office can oppose single-handedly the natural dilatoriness of lexicographers…It is the exception for any huge dictionary to be finished….Have you ever found a reason why a sane man should start on one of these enterprises unless he is comfortably paid and housed? Or why, if he is comfortably provided for, he should ever finish it?’ Fiercely loyal to the Press, Sisam’s intellectual acuity and capacity for incisive judgement were informed by decades of institutional experience and by his preference for practical (if short-term) solutions over financially risky idealism.

In retirement, Sisam edited a variety of other works and produced an important body of scholarly articles; his Studies in the History of Old English Literature and The Structure of Beowulf were published by OUP in 1953 and 1965 respectively. Undeservedly, he has no entry in the DNB or its second edition, ODNB, and it is only in the pages of OUP’s own institutional history (Sutcliffe 1978) that his achievements and career find proper recognition.2

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. First published in 1924, this anthology had sold 60,000 copies by 1972, the year after Sisam’s death. For Tolkien’s connection with OED lexicography see Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner 2006.
  2. For a history of the Sisam family, see Sisam 1993.