Wyllie, J. M.

James McLeod Wyllie (1907-71), classicist and lexicographer

Wyllie at work in the 1940s. Photo now in possession of Peter Glare

J. M. Wyllie was born in Glenbervie, Kincardineshire and educated at Mackie Academy and the University of Aberdeen, where he was a pupil of the distinguished patristic scholar and lexicographer Alexander Souter and gained first class honours in his MA in Classics in 1928. The following year he was employed by Kenneth Sisam at Oxford University Press to work on the first Supplement to the OED. At this time, the Press were deeply concerned that the Supplement, supposed to be a ‘scratch’ work which would quickly bring the earlier parts of OED1 (published from 1884 onwards) up to date, would instead drag on indefinitely, given that one of the two surviving editors, W. A. Craigie, was now based on Chicago and occupied on other projects, while the other, C. T. Onions, was notoriously slow. So Wyllie’s job was to act as Craigie’s Oxford lieutenant, processing the slips he sent over from Chicago into dictionary copy and thus competing with the team working under Onions. As revealed in office memos and papers still surviving in the OED archives, Sisam was delighted with Wyllie’s progress, which was much brisker than that of Onions, and especially pleased by his prompt production of dictionary reports and schedules. But the papers also record occasional conflicts between Wyllie and other members of staff, significant warning signals as it turned out.

Wyllie was swiftly identified as a future lexicographer in his own right. In 1931, Sisam judged that ‘if he will devote himself to the subject and get as much training as he can, I think he has good prospects of a career in lexicography, because the race has almost died out in this country’; and in 1933, when the Supplement had been completed, the Press set him to work on the new Latin Dictionary (a replacement for Lewis and Short) under the editorship of Wyllie’s former teacher Alexander Souter, now retired from Aberdeen and moved down to Oxford.

But Wyllie also played a significant role in the continuing fortunes of the OED. Contrary to (what has since become) received opinion, the OED did not come to a complete halt in 1933 following the completion of the Supplement. Instead, the lexicographers kept their files open, and Wyllie acted as keeper of what were known in internal office memos as ‘the OED collections’ – slips recording errors and omissions from either OED1 or the Supplement (e.g. putsch, Fianna Fail, mango, mariage blanc, and many others).1 From 1935 onwards, up to the early 1950s, there are records of Wyllie building up a reference library for OED purposes, pursuing inquiries about the meaning of words, answering letters and queries, supervising voluntary readers and acting as an interim editor of OED. In addition he watched over the subsidiary Oxford dictionaries – the Concise, Pocket, and Little Oxford Dictionaries, and the eventually aborted ‘Dictionary of Modern English’ – and trained up new editors for these projects.

Meanwhile, however, work on the Latin Dictionary was not progressing smoothly. ‘Wyllie’s competence and effort were far superior to Souter’s,’ an internal OUP memo records, ‘but this imbalance was not foreseen’. In 1939, Souter finally retired. Wyllie expected to be made sole editor in his place but the Press were by now alarmed at signs of his mental instability. After careful debate, they decided he should act as junior co-editor under Cyril Bailey, a distinguished classicist and a wise and judicious adviser to the Press. Wyllie was piqued and angry at being denied his promotion, and conflict soon arose between the two new co-editors. Matters were complicated by the onset of war: in intense anxiety about the possibility of bombing in Oxford, Wyllie had moved his young family back to Kincardineshire in Scotland and lodged them, bizarrely, in a hayloft. By April 1940, in Sisam’s view, ‘owing to domestic and war worries [Wyllie] was near the verge of a breakdown’. His distress seems more than adequately explained by the recent death of one of his children and the current illness of another – as incidentally mentioned in the OUP office correspondence (in fact two children died while the family was staying in the hayloft, apparently from some form of cot death).

In June 1940 Wyllie volunteered for military service and after officer training was posted to Intelligence in December 1941, working at Bletchley Park from July 1942 to September 1945. Here he put his incisive and analytic mind to good use by applying lexicographical method to break enemy codes and in addition writing a glossary of cryptographic terminology.2

But his mental disturbance continued after 1945 and he initially spent two years in Scotland, directing the Latin Dictionary from afar. Back in Oxford in March 1949 he finally took over as sole editor, continuing as before to maintain OED files as well as care for the subsidiary dictionaries. Over the next few years his relationship with the Press deteriorated further, although the publishers themselves clearly recognized his talents and abilities. Thus when the search began for a new editor for the OED Supplement in the early 1950s, the Secretary A. L. P. Norrington wrote, ‘I am convinced that Wyllie is the best choice for Editor. He is much the best definer – and indeed all-round lexicographer – that we know of, apart from the over-age Craigie and Onions. As it turned out, it was lamentable that he was ever involved in Latin lexicography, and the sooner he gets back to English the better’.

But in October 1953 Wyllie suffered a severe mental breakdown. In April 1954 he distributed a series of vituperatively libellous documents to all the OUP Delegates, expressing his bitter conviction that he had been deceived by Sisam and Chapman in their original appointment of Souter as his superior at the Latin Dictionary, in their failure to elevate him in 1939, and in their subsequent treatment of him. On his refusal to retract these documents he was dismissed. The Press made attempts, partly successful, to help both Wyllie and his family by delaying the payments owed them on the loan they had given him to buy his house at no. 42 Portland Road in Oxford, and by other forms of generous domestic support. Subsequently Wyllie ‘eked out a living as a schoolmaster’, moving first to a barn in his garden (in which he dispensed gin and ribena to visitors), while his wife supported herself and family by taking in lodgers, and later to Guernsey (where he taught at Guernsey Ladies’ College). Over the next few years, under the pseudonym ‘The Barras Seer’, Wyllie issued a stream of pamphlets on such matters as sin, sex, enlightenment, and the devil, printed by himself and copied on his own duplicator.

These included one entitled The Oxford Dictionary Slanders: The Greatest Scandal in the Whole History of Scholarship (1965), which reproduced various open letters to the prime minister, the lord chancellor, and Oxford University’s vice-chancellor, detailing the terrible errors of his adversaries Sisam, Chapman, Souter, and others. Earlier, he had written a twelve-book epic poem in which Sisam figured as an anti-Christ, who after pursuing Wyllie himself with fearful malice and hatred, had ‘fled to Scilly’s Isle’ (to which Sisam retired in 1942),

where east Atlantic rolls
who now should oakum tease
he Napier’s logs unrolls (Vision of Truth (Oxford, 1958), Book I, p. 22)

– the wholly unjust implication being that the extensive scholarship Sisam began to publish in retirement had all been plagiarized from his early mentor Napier’s lecture notes.

Wyllie kept in fairly regular touch with the Press, sending them copies of his pamphlets and occasional lexicographical offerings, including the partial return in 1962 of some OED corrigenda and addenda slips of Craigie’s (given to Wyllie on the assumption that he would be using them for a revision of OED himself) and portions of a dictionary of synonyms and a Latin text-book for schools. He continued in a ‘state of inspiration…[with] an incredible amount of energy at my disposal’. On his death in a car accident in 1971 his family scrupulously returned all his dictionary-related papers to the Press.

Apart from a brief acknowledgement in the Preface to the 1933 Supplement, Wyllie goes unremembered in the OED annals. The embarrassment and distress occasioned by his enforced departure in 1954, and his virulent repudiation of Oxford lexicography, seem to have resulted (understandably) in a form of institutional amnesia: the years Wyllie spent exploring and researching new words and meanings for the Dictionary, recording corrections and omissions, and generally tending the files, were noted neither in the second Supplement of 1972-86 nor the OEDs second edition of 1989. He is, however, given honourable mention in the Publishers’ Note to the completed Oxford Latin Dictionary (1982), which records ‘it is to Mr Wyllie that credit for the scheme of the dictionary and organization of work in the early years is principally due’. Recognition from the OED will surely come in time.

Note: this page is based on information in Brewer 2007b chapters 2-3, where more details can be found. Since it was written, Wyllie’s work for Oxford University Press and the Dictionary has been recognised by Peter Gilliver in his book The Making of the OED (2016), e.g. at 391-412, and in a posting to the OED blog at https://public.oed.com/blog/oed-editors-1920s-jessie-coulson-and-james-wyllie/.

Last updated on 29 September 2021


  1. For more information, see discussion of these words in Brewer 2007b.
  2. A copy is preserved in the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland, US; it has been republished, along with a letter from Wyllie’s son James, at http://www.codesandciphers.org.uk/documents/cryptdict/ [accessed 30 August 2018].