Dictionary Editors

In this section we give brief biographies of the chief editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.

James Murray (1837-1915)

James MurraryThe principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray was born the son of a tailor in Denholm, Scotland. At fourteen he began an intense regimen of self-education, showing intelligence and determination that later would see him through twenty-eight trying years of work on the Dictionary.

Murray worked as a schoolmaster
and a bank clerk

As a young man Murray worked as a schoolmaster and a bank clerk, but always maintained a strong interest in other fields, particularly philology. His membership in the British Philological Society and his book on Scottish dialects, published in 1868, allowed him to make many important scholarly contacts.

In 1879 he was invited by Oxford University Press to edit the new English dictionary which had been proposed by the Philological Society. Despite some initial disagreements between Murray and the Press over editorial guidelines, Murray agreed to begin formal work on the project soon afterwards.

Working in a specially constructed workroom called the ‘Scriptorium’, in which were kept two tons of source quotations that the Philological Society had collected, Murray proceeded with the project. Finding some errors and oversights in the Society’s materials, he established a ‘reading programme’, through which he gathered more quotations for the Dictionary. A reading programme similar to Murray’s is still used today as a principal method of assembling material for revising the Dictionary.

At one point Murray came close
to resigning from the project

There were recurring arguments and confrontations over the years between Murray and the Oxford Delegates. At one point Murray came close to resigning from the project, and at another the Press nearly stopped publication. Despite these problems Murray continued to work on the Dictionary until his death. His contribution to the development of the Dictionary is astounding. He set the standards and original model for the work, and personally edited half of the first edition. Though he did not live to see this first edition published, his amazing achievements on behalf of the Dictionary gave future generations of editors a solid foundation on which they have been building ever since.

You may also be interested in James Murray’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The quotation slip written by Murray appears in the entry for dictionary, n., and reads: ‘1857 Trench On some deficiencies in our English Dictionaries 4 A Dictionary, according to that idea of it which seems to be alone capable of being logically maintained, is an inventory of the language.’

Henry Bradley (1845-1923)

A philologist, lexicographer, and second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1888 until his death, Bradley was born in Manchester, and largely self-educated, having attended grammar school only until the age of fourteen. He was employed as a corresponding clerk for a Sheffield cutlery firm from 1863 to 1883. During these years, he pursued his philological interests, mastering modern European and classical languages, and acquiring a knowledge of Hebrew.

His quiet manner was a contrast
to Murray’s occasionally
volatile temperament

In 1884, for economic reasons and out of concern for his wife’s health, he moved to London where he undertook miscellaneous literary work, mainly writing book reviews. In the same year, his review of the first part of the recently published New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary) demonstrated such an unusual knowledge of philology that Murray began consulting him on etymological problems. In 1886, Bradley was employed by the Delegates of Oxford University Press to assist with the letter B, and in January 1888 he was appointed as the Dictionary’s second editor. He continued to work in London, using a room provided by the British Museum, with his own staff. Finally in 1896, he moved to Oxford, although he, and the two subsequent editors, worked separately from Murray in quarters allocated to them in the Old Ashmolean Museum.

Bradley’s forty years’ work on the Dictionary encompassed the letters E-G, L-M, S-Sh (a section which included the longest entry ‘set’), St, and part of W. Bradley was a modest, unassuming scholar; although their backgrounds were similar, his quiet manner was a contrast to Murray’s occasionally volatile temperament, and their methods were quite different. Onions, who worked under both men before becoming the fourth editor contrasted Murray’s formal, schoolmasterly instruction with Bradley, the ‘philosophical exponent’, who taught ‘by hint, by interjectional phrase, or even a burst of laughter’.

In 1891, Bradley’s work on the Dictionary was recognized with an honorary MA from Oxford, and in 1914, both he and Murray received honorary D.Litts. Bradley became senior editor after Murray died in 1915 and continued to work on the Dictionary until his own sudden death in 1923.

You may also be interested in Henry Bradley’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The quotation shown here was almost certainly sought out and written down by Bradley for make v.(1), where it appears at sense 11. The slip reads: ‘1886 T. Le M. Douse Introd. Gothic 167 Wahsja..makes in the present 2 p[erson] s[ingular] wahseis.’

William Craigie (1867-1957)

A philologist, lexicographer, third editor the Dictionary, and co-editor (with Onions) of the 1933 Supplement, like James Murray, Craigie, who was born in Dundee, was a Lowland Scot. He graduated from St. Andrews University in 1888 and later attended Balliol College, Oxford. In common with his two colleagues, he had a remarkable knowledge of languages, specializing in Celtic, Older Scots, and Scandinavian, particularly Icelandic.

He has been called ‘the most productive
lexicographer of his time’

Craigie was appointed by the Delegates of the Press to Bradley’s staff in 1897 and worked on the letter G. In 1901, he became the third editor and was responsible for editing N, Q, R, Si-Sq, U, V, and Wo-Wy, as well as approximately one-third of the Supplement (1933). He was knighted in 1928 upon completion of the first edition. While working on the Dictionary, Craigie was also a lecturer in Scandinavian languages at Oxford, and in 1916 became a professor of Anglo-Saxon. He has been called ‘the most productive lexicographer of his time’, and in his later years worked simultaneously on three major dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary, his own Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, and the historical Dictionary of American English (1936-44). In order to edit the latter, he took a post as a professor of English at the University of Chicago in 1925. In 1936, he resigned from that position to devote his full attention to the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and finished the letter I before handing over the editorship to his successor at the age of 88.

You may also be interested in William Craigie’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The quotation slip written by Craigie appears in the entry for navigation n., sense 4, and reads: ‘1605 Shaks. Macb. IV. i. 54 Though the yesty Waues Confound and swallow Nauigation vp.’

C.T. Onions (1873-1965)

A grammarian, lexicographer, fourth editor of the Dictionary, a co-editor (with Craigie) of the 1933 Supplement, Onions was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the son of a designer and embosser of metals, and exhibited an early interest in grammar. He obtained a London BA in 1892 and an MA in 1895, both while attending Mason College, Birmingham. A professor of English at the College introduced Onions to James Murray and in September of his final year, Murray invited Onions to join his staff, during which time he also compiled An Advanced English Syntax (1904). Later, from 1906 until 1913, he worked under Bradley and Craigie and prepared portions of M, N, R, and S. In 1914, he was appointed as the fourth editor and was responsible in that capacity for the sections Su-Sz, Wh-Working, and X, Y, Z. Onions enjoyed saying that he contributed the final entry to the Dictionary – a cross-reference Zyxt, which since it was ‘the last word’, was later made the name of a soap.

Onions enjoyed saying that he contributed
the final entry to the Dictionary

His time as editor was interrupted by a stint in naval intelligence in 1918, and he was also a reader in English at Oxford from 1927 to 1949. In addition, he edited several dictionaries for Oxford University Press, the most important of which were the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1933) and the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966), to which he devoted his last twenty years. Onions was known for his etymological skill and his analytical powers which were demonstrated in his organization of the longest entry ‘set’, and the complex entries for ‘shall’, ‘will’, and the interrogative pronouns. He maintained his interest in the Oxford English Dictionary throughout his life. From 1940 to 1945, Onions served as Librarian at Magdalen College and students often profited from his constant presence in the Dictionary bay of the library. Because of his friendship with Burchfield, the editor of the Supplement (1972-86), Onions was always a welcome visitor to the Supplement’s editorial offices, as well as a valuable advisor.

You may also be interested in C. T. Onion’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The quotation slip written by Onions appears in the entry for such, dem. a. and pron. The text reads: ‘1538 Starkey England (1878) 134 They haue theyr seruyce, such as hyt ys, al in theyr vulgare tong openly rehersyd.’ The reverse of the slip demonstrates the recycling of early OED proofs, in this case for S (for part of which Onions had overall responsibility).

Robert Burchfield (1923-2004)

A scholar and editor of the four-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, Robert Burchfield was born in Wanganui, New Zealand. He came to Oxford in 1950 as a Rhodes scholar. Burchfield became a college lecturer in English Language and Literature immediately after his graduation. While teaching at Magdalen College at Oxford, he was encouraged by C.T. Onions, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, to become involved in the field of lexicography. In 1966 he, along with G.W.S. Friedrichsen, assisted in editing one of Onions’s projects, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. In 1957, Burchfield was appointed editor of the Supplement. His many valuable contributions to the Dictionary’s expansion include re-establishing the reading programme originally set up by founding editor James Murray, and broadening its scope to include words from many countries including North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean. He also instituted increased coverage of scientific and technical terms, as well as slang and colloquialisms. His policies continue to serve as guidelines for the Dictionary.

Robert Burchfield died on 5 July 2004. What follows is the Chief Editor’s tribute to him, together with an obituary from The Independent, which were published on this web site in the days following Robert Burchfield’s death.

John Simpson’s tribute to Robert Burchfield

The death of Bob Burchfield (or ‘RWB’ as he was always known to his staff, in the manner of those days) has robbed English lexicography of a scholar of international stature. He was a mixture of Johnson and Fowler, recording and documenting the vocabulary of English with painstaking detail, a scholar’s neutrality, but with occasional tinges both of linguistic purism and of humour.

When he was appointed Editor of the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1957 (a post which he held until 1986), he put aside his Middle English research in favour of the study of the modern lexicon, but never lost the dogged rigour in his medieval work. He joined the ranks of a group of distinguished medieval scholars from New Zealand central to scholarly work on the language in Oxford for a generation.

Indeed, he was single-handedly responsible for re-establishing a tradition of historical lexical research on the OED which had evaporated with the disbanding of the original OED staff on the completion of the First Edition of the Dictionary (1884-1928). As an academic colleague of C. T. Onions (one of the editors of the First Edition) in the 1950s he ensured editorial continuity between the early editors of the Dictionary and their modern successors.

He will perhaps be best remembered for two things: for championing the ‘varieties’ of world English, and ensuring that these were accorded their rightful place in the Dictionary, and as the editor responsible for including the previously ‘taboo’ Anglo-Saxon four-letter words in the OED. The editorial traditions of the OED today owe much to Bob Burchfield’s no-nonsense, practical approach to a task of gargantuan proportions. He didn’t suffer fools gladly; he didn’t suffer fools at all.

John Simpson, Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

Robert Burchfield, workaholic Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries

Obituary published in The Independent, Obituaries, 9 July 2004

Robert Burchfield was the last link with the last of the four editors of The Oxford English Dictionary, C. T. Onions of Magdalen College, Oxford, the college to which Burchfield went from New Zealand in 1949 as a Rhodes Scholar. That connection shaped his life, more than he knew when he arrived.

Burchfield’s parentage was solidly working-class; he was born at Wanganui, on the west coast of the North Island, and went, not to its famous public school, “the Eton of the Southern Hemisphere”, but to Wanganui Technical College: he was proud of that, and the city was proud of him, and gave him the Freedom of the City in 1986.

He went on to the English Department of Victoria University College, Wellington, in the first half of the 20th century the Alma Mater of many who, having gained Rhodes or Commonwealth Scholarships, went on to Britain and distinguished themselves as medievalists and linguists, or as Renaissance scholars. He was at Victoria College from 1940 to 1941, then served in the Royal New Zealand Artillery including two years in Italy, and returned to the college in 1946-48. He taught there in the year that followed his graduation: it coincided with the 50th anniversary of its foundation, and he wrote for that occasion the rarest of his publications, a brief history of the college.

When he turned up in Oxford in October 1949, properly clad in a graduate’s gown, to attend Professor C. L. Wrenn’s lecture series on Beowulf he seemed to his undergraduate contemporaries a formidable figure. Rhodes Scholars took a second BA in Oxford, after only two years. Magdalen knew him as a good rugby player, soon to become the captain of the Magdalen team, and his tenure of that captaincy showed his character, for he gave it up at the end of his first year because it deflected him from his work, was summoned by the Warden of Rhodes House, Sir Carleton Allen, and told that his duty lay as much on the playing-field as in the library: Burchfield did not give in.

Onions was the Fellow Librarian of his college, a daily, intimidating presence, Reader in English Philology. As such, he did not teach undergraduates, but he somehow took to Burchfield, and Burchfield learnt a lot from him informally. Formally Jack Bennett and C. S. Lewis were his tutors, and he went to Gabriel Turville-Petre for Old Icelandic. He gladly absorbed scholarship. Of those who were his contemporaries in the philologically oriented English Course I – for them there was no literature after the death of Chaucer in 1400 – no one’s lecture-notes were as neatly written and as well organized as his, no one’s mind was as clear as his.

Burchfield’s last two years as a Rhodes Scholar were spent as a graduate student supervised by J. R. R. Tolkien on an edition of The Ormulum, a late-12th-century text the language of which requires knowledge of the early Scandinavian languages as well as, of course, Old and Middle English. Tolkien had the necessary erudition, and was an inspiring supervisor. (Indeed Burchfield chose “Tollers” as his hero for The Independent Magazine’s series “Heroes and Villains” in 1989.) Burchfield’s edition, however, was never completed. Sadly, when I last saw him in hospital, very ill with Parkinson’s disease and no longer thinking clearly, he said, did I know, in another fortnight he would be handing in to the publishers the completed edition?

Bob Burchfield came over from Wellington newly married, to Ethel née Yates, a marriage dissolved in 1976, and from April 1950 their children were born. He needed money after the Rhodes, and during Bennett’s year of study leave Magdalen appointed him as a Junior Lecturer, and then Christ Church appointed him as Lecturer from 1953 to 1957.

The growing family inhabited a college house near the railway station, and on the river, too dangerous it seemed to Ethel, who was anxious for the safety of their children, two girls and a boy. Bob may well not have noticed: he was so busy with teaching at Christ Church and at St Peter’s, the college to which he was attached as Tutorial Fellow, and then Emeritus Fellow to the end of his life; as Honorary Secretary of the Early English Text Society, 1955-68; and briefly as editor with J. C. Maxwell of Notes and Queries. He was a workaholic, and he needed to be, seeing the low pay of academic jobs.

In 1957 Burchfield was appointed by the Oxford University Press to produce a supplement to The Oxford English Dictionary. The main purpose, as seen by the press, was to bring up to date that great work of reference that had become increasingly out of date; new words and new uses were to be authoritatively recorded. He knew that the whole of OED, Old, Middle, and Modern English, was in need of revision, yet all he was supposed to do was to add more recent information than was in OED. Readers of journals and books had to be commissioned to provide quotations, and when Burchfield nearly despaired of finding them many of his friends and colleagues, and their spouses, turned to, and wrote out slips with quotations.

As time went on the little house in Jericho, at the side of the press, was too small for so great an endeavour, and it was accommodated more spaciously in the house on St Giles, latterly occupied by the revisers of The Dictionary of National Biography. In 1971 the press appointed him Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries, and in 1972 the first of four huge volumes of his A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary appeared, the last in 1984.

Honours came to him from 1972 onwards. He was appointed CBE in 1975, Liverpool University gave him an Hon DLitt, as did in 1983 Victoria University of Wellington; he was President of the English Association, 1978-79, a foundation in Hamburg honoured him with the Shakespeare Prize in 1994. Wholly unpompous and not one bit status-conscious he enjoyed being honoured, and he was pleased that Terry F. Hoad and I edited a Festschrift for him (Words: for Robert Burchfield’s sixty-fifth birthday, 1988). The happiest event was his marriage in 1976 to Elizabeth Knight, also a New Zealander, and at that time on the staff of the OUP at Ely House, London.

In Who’s Who Burchfield gives as the first of his recreations ‘investigating English grammar’. If ‘grammar’ includes lexicography and the history of the language, that supposed ‘recreation’ defines his life succinctly; it indicates that work is his recreation. He helped Tolkien finish his edition of Ancrene Wisse in 1962, he helped Onions finish The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology in 1966.

Among his publications, he produced in 1986 The New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary, he edited Studies in Lexicography in 1987, and the volume of The Cambridge History of the English Language on English in Britain and overseas in 1994. And for the forthcoming third edition of The Oxford English Dictionary he strove to revise entries that have quotations from The Ormulum.

His last book, for the OUP (like almost all his work), is The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996). It shows his total grasp of the subject. The writing of it, though laborious, gave him pleasure, as did the many favourable reviews. Of course, he had prejudices, yet, unlike H. W. Fowler (the title of whose book he took over, though little else), he was permissive rather than prescriptive, and his entry prescriptivism in The New Fowler is not merely a model of clarity and of historical accuracy: it shows how he exercised his scholarly judgement. He was a practical man, not a theoretician of language.

He liked to quote what Dr Onions had said to him: “Lexicography can be done on the kitchen table.”
Eric Stanley

Robert William Burchfield, lexicographer and philologist: born Wanganui, New Zealand 27 January 1923; Junior Lecturer in English Language, Magdalen College, Oxford 1952-53; Lecturer in English Language, Christ Church, Oxford 1953-57; Honorary Secretary, Early English Text Society 1955-68; Editor, A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary 1957-86; Lecturer, St Peter’s College, Oxford 1955-63, Tutorial Fellow 1963-79, Senior Research Fellow 1979-90, Emeritus Fellow 1990-2004; Editor, Notes and Queries 1959-62; Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionaries 1971-84; CBE 1975; President, English Association 1978-79; married 1949 Ethel Yates (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1976 Elizabeth Knight; died Abingdon, Oxfordshire 5 July 2004.

Reproduced by permission from The Independent, Obituaries, 9 July 2004.

You may also be interested in Robert Burchfield’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Edmund Weiner

Edmund Weiner joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary in July 1977. Previously he taught Old and Middle English and English linguistic history at Christ Church, Oxford, and undertook research on Middle English literature.

His career as a lexicographer began with the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1983 he started work on Oxford University Press’s plans for the computerization of the Oxford English Dictionary, and became Co-Editor of the Second Edition in 1985. In 1993 he became Deputy Chief Editor, with responsibility for assisting in the finalization of entries for publication and the revision of grammatical information in the Dictionary.

It was his initial analysis of the structure of the dictionary text which enabled the Oxford English Dictionary to be first handled and searched by computer in 1987. He was subsequently closely involved in the preparation of the popular CD-ROM edition, published in 1992.

He has always been fascinated by word origins, phonetic change, and grammatical development. He takes a keen interest in particular aspects of the vocabulary of English, and has written several articles about the language of Early Modern English non literary documents (such as wills and inventories).

Edmund was born in Oxford, where he has lived most of his life. The works of the famous Oxonians J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were powerful early influences. He is the co-author, with two OED colleagues, of The Ring of Words: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. He also enjoys listening to music, reading (especially on historical subjects), family history research, church involvement, and family life. He is a Fellow of Kellogg College Oxford.

John Simpson

John Simpson joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary in the summer of 1976 after studying English Literature at the University of York and Medieval Studies at the University of Reading.

He was appointed by Robert Burchfield to work on the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary and subsequently became Co-Editor of the Second Edition of the Dictionary, which was published to widespread acclaim in 1989. He was appointed Chief Editor in 1993.

John was born and educated in Cheltenham. When he joined the Dictionary, he entered a world which was organized around the painstaking manual analysis of millions of index cards, each one containing evidence of linguistic usage, much as in Murray’s day.

As Chief Editor, he now presides over the world’s largest dictionary programme, in which the traditional techniques of analysis and definition are supported by complex computer systems which assist in the editing of the text of the Dictionary and in the collection and processing of the raw materials on which entries are based. The scope of the work has expanded from the addition of modern vocabulary in the Supplement to the comprehensive documentation of English throughout its history: a return to Murray’s vision transformed by the processing power of the computer.

John’s other interests include some which are more resistant to computerization, such as village cricket. He is a member of the English Faculty at Oxford and of the Philological Society (where the idea of the Dictionary was first mooted in the 1850s), and a Fellow of Kellogg College. He is a world expert on proverbs and slang, and has edited dictionaries on both these subjects for Oxford University Press; he regularly lectures and broadcasts on the English language and on the Dictionary.