A Life in Lexicography

A colleague of mine, when we were about to advertise a dictionary post, opined that we should regard with some reserve any applicant who declared that they had always wanted to be a lexicographer, since this was not a natural thing to want to be. While I think this might be rather a severe judgement, it does in my experience hold one grain of truth: many people I have known (and I am among them) have come into lexicography sideways. We did not set out with that intention—but, having discovered it, it turned out to be something, at least in my case, that felt a perfect fit with what I wanted to do.

Looking back now I can see that, almost accidentally, I made choices which brought me into the world of dictionaries. I chose to read English at the University of Exeter, which at the time was offering a very traditional curriculum. Everyone had a year of Old English and History of the Language, after which you could opt to specialize with a course that included not just continued Old English and extra Middle English, but also Old Norse. It meant that you missed out on the formal study of later literature, but I felt that I had the rest of my life to read Dickens, while I was highly unlikely otherwise to engage with the sagas in their original tongue. It seemed to me that one of the points of going to university was to encounter just such fields of study – and it remains a great satisfaction to know that I did once read Beowulf and the Laxdoela Saga in the original, while acknowledging freely that I couldn’t do it now. I also became more and more interested in the English language itself—to the degree that when I turned twenty-one (in those distant days, the age of majority) I asked my parents for a set of the Oxford English Dictionary as my twenty-firster. Given that the twelve volumes plus supplement (that is, the First Supplement of 1933) cost £71, the twelve-volume set was a physically and financially substantial gift. Those volumes, later extended by the addition of the modern Supplements, are now rarely touched, since if I want to consult OED I do so online, but they retain an honoured if slightly dusty place on my shelves.

My next significant choice was that I would pursue the study of Old Norse, and consequently I went to Oxford as a graduate student to work on skaldic verse. However, fascinating as I found the study, it was all too clearly unlikely to lead to any sort of gainful employment. A second resource was needed, and it seemed natural to turn to librarianship. Armed in due course with some practical experience in Somerville library, and a library diploma, I looked round for appropriate employment. And at that point, fate very definitely intervened. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary advertised for a library researcher. The qualifications they required included knowledge of the language (including Old and Middle English) and experience of librarianship. I applied for the post—and, without wholly realizing it, set the course for the rest of my professional, and to some degree my personal, life. (Any thought that I might in time complete my thesis quite soon faded as I was engulfed by the world of dictionaries; much as I had loved Old Norse, and the intricacies especially of skaldic verse and ‘kennings’, I have to admit that it went largely unregretted.)

Library research for the OED Supplement was specialized, and deserves some explaining. (For an excellent and detailed account, I can’t do better than recommend to everyone Yvonne Warburton’s “Finding the Right Words”, published in Dictionaries in 1986, and readily accessible through Project Muse.) To put it briefly, what Yvonne and I had to do was to check all the details of references for illustrative quotations that Supplement editors wanted to use and—perhaps the real meat of the work—antedate where possible the existing evidence for words which deserved consideration for inclusion, but for which the evidence to date was all too recent. It is extraordinary in 2021, when I can sit at my desk at home in Witney and consult the Bodleian’s online catalogue, or do an online search for a word or phrase across a number of digitized texts, to remember what that kind of research entailed in a pre-online world. Not only were the Bodleian catalogues (two runs of huge volumes of pasted-in slips) in physical and distinctly heavy form, but to order any book you had to fill out a green slip and wait perhaps two days for the book to materialize. Because we would in any case have been ordering an impossible number of books for the unfortunate library staff to transport, we had the privilege of stack access to the Bodleian. You typically spent an hour in the catalogue room compiling a list of books to check on-shelf, and ordering a number for which you knew the only way was to read the whole text, and then (perhaps fortified by coffee) you descended to the depths in the New Bodleian. From the lowest floor (L Floor) you could walk under Bodley Quad to the stacks below the Radcliffe Camera – where, in those days, fiction was shelved. Since on most days you went ‘underground’ by mid-morning, and with a brief respite for a lunch break didn’t emerge until around 4, it was something of a troglodyte existence. But it was fascinating—and, when you succeeded in running a word to earth, enormously satisfying. The value of library training quickly became apparent when searching for a particular item of vocabulary—the trick was to identify a subject field in which it might have been used, and then go to the shelves on which the relevant books were held. (In those days, Bodley classified its holdings rather than, as now, shelving them according only to accession number.) Librarians learn to classify books according to a system; this effectively was classification in reverse. You started with a word, and asked yourself whether there might be a subject area in which it might be in use.

These days, the Bodleian has undergone a considerable makeover—H floor now houses the excellent coffee shop of the Weston Library, as well as its main entrance hall and exhibition space. The area beneath the Radcliffe Camera, and the part of the passageway leading to the Old Bodleian, is open to readers as the Gladstone Link and has undergone a transformation—not just in what books are shelved there, but in the easy chairs, workstations, and good lighting which now make it such a welcoming space—but when I am down there I occasionally think back to the days when I settled resignedly on the somewhat dusty floor to leaf through a detective novel, trying to work out which element of the reference might have been garbled by the reader who had originally noted down the quotation. While I regard the changes with great approval, I am rather glad to have had the chance of knowing the Bodleian in its earlier incarnation.

One of the things I am most grateful for, when I reflect on my life with OUP, was that it regularly offered me the chance to change an established pattern—I found that the point always came when “more of the same” was not going to be enough, whatever the intrinsic interest of the work. Having spent several years looking for the raw material of Supplement entries, I emerged from below ground, and soon found myself engaged with what I still regard as one of the most satisfying parts of my lexicographical life: working on a completely new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in a team led by Lesley Brown, still the best natural lexicographer I have ever known. The original Shorter Oxford, published in 1933, had been a strict abridgement of the parent volume, but the New Shorter incorporated historical evidence not only from the modern OED Supplements, but also from major research dictionaries such as the Middle English Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. New chronological evidence often made a significant difference to sense order. We were also able to look more critically at OED entries untouched since their original publication and, where appropriate, make different judgements about semantic differentiation. The great satisfaction of working on New Shorter, at the time and in retrospect, was the sense that you were able to clear away the inessentials and look at the mainstream of the language. At the same time the challenge was to make the definitions as clear as possible—since the entries, unlike those in OED, were not supported by blocks of illustrative quotations to give colour and life.

At the same time (this was in the 1980s) technology was of course moving apace. The great project to digitize the OED, later so triumphantly realized, was under way. Colleagues on the Concise Oxford were capturing their own text. And the New Shorter moved from handwritten slips, first to editing hard copy of skeleton entries generated from the OED database, and in the final stages of revision to searching and correcting online. By the time the two volumes of the New Shorter appeared in 1994, it was clear that writing out entries by hand was a thing of the past—and being able to search across your whole text (as distinct from trying desperately to remember where and whether a similar question might have arisen before) was now the natural way. It was an extraordinary change, effectively an industrial revolution, although I am not sure I fully realized at the time how fortunate we were at Oxford in the level of resource that was available to us. Looking back now, I can see it and be thankful.

Completion of any project is also, necessarily a time of change. I had spent ten years on the New Shorter, and covered most of the alphabet, as well as fixing my affections on historical lexicography: I have to confess that neologisms as such are less interesting to me than charting the course of a word through decades and centuries. At the same time, I wanted a new challenge: something that would offer new fields to explore without losing touch with what I valued most about my dictionary experience. Once again, it turned out that I had the great good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I was offered quotation dictionaries, with the brief to expand the list as well as, in due course, editing the next edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A further inestimable benefit was the presence as a colleague of Susan Ratcliffe, who had already contributed significantly to the most recent edition. The importance of her further contribution to quotation dictionaries of skill, dedication, and meticulous editing cannot be overstated, and I am lastingly grateful for it.

I am also grateful, looking back, that I was once more in the situation in which I had an enormous amount to learn. Not just about quotations (and I shall return to that in a moment) but also about reference publishing. When I first joined Oxford Dictionaries they had just settled in to their offices at 37a St Giles—physically distant from the main press at Walton Street, and I can see now distant in other ways. We knew a great deal about the refinements of writing dictionaries, but much less about the business of publishing. Fully engaged with a concept of what work is required to achieve an excellent text, it can be possible to see the pressure of deadlines as an invitation to cut corners or compromise quality. While I would never say that that can’t happen, I would suggest that regarded in the right way such pressures can be creative. Working on a complex dictionary entry, like pursuing an item of research, can be immensely satisfying, but it brings its own dangers. One of these is that you will continue working on a single item not because you are really likely to improve the outcome, but because it is a process you yourself enjoy. Deadlines, that essential part of ensuring that the work you produce fulfils its function of putting a dictionary into the hands of a user, help you to the necessary pragmatism. Now too I had to engage with the processes of publishing: not just producing text myself but planning titles, supporting specialist editors, discussing what elements of design would be most attractive and helpful to our readers.

I had also, of course, to engage with the world of quotations itself, and especially, how best to ensure that Oxford dictionaries of quotations were evidence-based, in line with all we were doing in the area of lexical dictionaries. Gradually we built up a systematic ‘Incomings’ reading programme, by which what was being quoted could be captured, filed, and in due course researched. At the same time we began to think hard about how our readers were likely to approach our texts, putting in more navigational aids between related quotes and individual entries. What kind of contextual background was helpful, and how much space could you allow for it? And, of course, what were the key questions they wanted answered—was it Who Said That? What’s Been Said About This? We developed some subject-organized titles which were aimed at the second group. Most of all, however, over my years working with quotations, I became more and more interested in how they are used, and especially in what are termed ‘misquotations’—much more than mistakes, and far more interesting. As I looked at what had become familiar much-quoted versions of an original, it appeared to me that quotations could be as subject to language change as any lexical item. And the change itself, often bringing with it a shift in meaning or emphasis, signified that the quotation had taken on an independent life of its own irrespective of the original wording and context. At the same time I began to research the origins of ODQ itself, and to look at how dictionaries of quotations themselves develop in response to changes in culture and society. Quotations, in short, brought me a new and rich area to explore, but one in which I could deploy the techniques of historical lexicography to some advantage.

I loved the world of publishing, and the chance to build a list—and the decade between the early 1990s and the mid noughties was an expansionist time for dictionaries. But all good things come to an end, and once a list is made it is not generally infinitely extensible. I realized too that, while I had enormously enjoyed my time at OUP, I didn’t necessarily want to hang on desperately until forcibly dislodged—since I thought then, and think from experience now, that “retirement” needs to be much more than stopping. It should be the point at which you still have the energy to begin something new. Once more, the nature of lexicography came to my aid. It is not so easy to retire and remain a publisher; you can however retire as a publisher but convert yourself to an author—especially when online resources make it possible for you to access a database to edit from home. Since I retired from OUP in 2007, I have edited two editions (published respectively in 2009 and 2014) of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and have been able as well to research and write various articles and books. DSNA gave me another learning experience by asking me to edit Dictionaries for some years, as well more recently as paying me the great honour of allowing me to serve as Vice-President/President-Elect and then President. In my free time I can enjoy such diverse activities as “church crawling”, looking for wild orchids, and acting as a school governor—while pursuing further archival research into the background of quotations, and of ODQ.

In 2021, unbelievably 14 years since I retired, I can also watch with fascination how the developments of technology continue to offer a new area to the world of lexicography. (Judy Pearsall’s chapter in the recently-published Cambridge Companion to English Dictionaries has some fascinating insights here.) In 1941, when the first Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was published, the volume served as a useful intermediary between a reader and a whole range of printed texts. Today, many readers can easily make their own direct searches—so, what is the primary function of a dictionary of quotations? We might say authority—but to what degree is that valued by the person who wants a telling, pithy quote by a recognized ‘name’ for their presentation or article? Especially if authority’s response is to say dampeningly that the quotation is apocryphal, or was spoken or written in a different form. The changing role of known dictionary texts is one that needs to be explored for each title. For myself, I can simply enjoy choosing to research quotations and dictionaries, while watching with fascination and gratitude to see another era of change ensue. At the end of 40 years of lexicography I can, in fact, see exactly why one might want to be a lexicographer; I think though that I was very lucky to be able to regard myself as a publisher too.

And there is one final point to make. Despite the myth of the single scholar labouring for years to write a dictionary, all dictionaries are to some extent a team effort: there is no single ‘onlie begetter’. The concomitant to that is that a life in lexicography brings a lifetime too of friendships with valued colleagues—and that, perhaps, is the greatest luck of all.