Breaking the code

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By Peter Gilliver, OED

Are lexicographers good at crosswords? Many people seem to think so; and it’s true that the late John Sykes, one-time editor of both the Concise and the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, won the Times Crossword Championship so often that he took to not entering the competition every year so that other contestants could have a chance. But when I started work on the OED I was surprised to find that my own background as an enthusiastic crossword solver, and Scrabble player, wasn’t matched on all sides by my colleagues. In fact the kind of mindset which makes a good crossword solver—the mindset which sees a word as a collection of letters to be played with—is quite a different matter from the kind of sensitivity to words as components of a text that makes a good lexicographer, although the two can certainly coincide, as they did in John Sykes.

Lexicography and cryptography

Between crosswords and cryptography, however, there is certainly an overlap: some of the cryptographers who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War were famously recruited on the strength of their ability to solve the Telegraph crossword in under 12 minutes. And, interestingly, among the ranks of lexicographers, certainly over the last century, there are enough code-breakers to suggest a connection of some kind.

The first Oxford lexicographer to have become involved in cryptography may have been Charles Onions, the fourth person to be appointed an Editor of the OED. All we know for certain is that during the First World War he was taken from his post at the Dictionary and sent to work at the Admiralty in London, where he is known to have worked in ‘naval intelligence’, and where his proficiency in German is said to have been put to good use—though whether he was involved in code-breaking, of the kind that went on in the Admiralty’s famous ‘Room 40’, is not clear. However, at least one of the lexicographers who worked with him in the 1920s was definitely a cryptographer. James McLeod Wyllie, a Kincardineshire man who had studied classics at Aberdeen, joined the staff of the Dictionary in 1929, as part of the team working on the first Supplement (published in 1933), to which he made a considerable contribution. He then moved into Latin lexicography, becoming co-editor of the Oxford Latin Dictionary in 1939; but in 1940 he volunteered for military service, and soon moved into intelligence work. In 1942 he found his way to Bletchley Park, where he worked for the remainder of the war, making a significant contribution to the cracking of the Enigma code—as well as indulging his incurable enthusiasm for lexicography by compiling the ‘Bletchley Park Cryptographic Dictionary’, a glossary of the jargon used by the code-breakers themselves. After the war he might even have become the editor of the OED’s new Supplement had he not suffered a breakdown in 1953–4, from which he never fully recovered. It was only long after his death in 1971 that his work at Bletchley Park became known. (His ‘Cryptographic Dictionary’ is now available).

Another, rather more famous lexicographer from the days of the OED’s first edition came very close to becoming a code-breaker in the spring of 1939. J. R. R. Tolkien, who had worked on the Dictionary immediately after the First World War—having been taught by William Craigie, the Dictionary’s third Editor, while studying at Oxford—and who was by this time professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University, was one of numerous academics invited to the Government Code and Cypher School in London (which moved to Bletchley Park a few months later) for testing as a potential cryptographer. He was described as ‘keen’ in official records, but for some reason chose to stick to academia. Looking across the Atlantic we find another Craigie connection in the figure of Sherman Kuhn, who studied at Chicago when Craigie was Professor of English there, and who served as a cryptographer in the US Army; in 1948 he joined the staff of the Middle English Dictionary, subsequently serving as its editor from 1961 until 1983.

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Cryptography and lexicography

Recruitment could also work the other way. During his time at Bletchley Park, James Wyllie encountered several other cryptographers who subsequently worked on various dictionary projects, at least two of whom seem to have been introduced to lexicography by him. C. T. Carr, who would go on to become professor of German at St Andrews, was apparently recommended by Wyllie in 1945 as a possible editor of an encyclopedic dictionary which OUP had been planning for some time (it was eventually published in 1962 as the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary), and also edited the Pocket Oxford German Dictionary. The classicist John Chadwick—most famous now for his part in a different kind of code-breaking, the decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s—was also recruited into lexicography by Wyllie, and indeed worked alongside him for some years on the Oxford Latin Dictionary; and Nakdimon Doniach, who edited the Oxford English–Arabic Dictionary for OUP and worked in his later years on a similar English–Hebrew dictionary, was another Bletchley veteran.

There may of course have been others who have worked in cryptography as well as on the OED, but whose involvement in the former remains a secret. And are there any code-breakers lurking among the staff of today’s OED? Well, that would be telling….