An Oxford lexicographer of the 1960s: Penny Silva

An Oxford lexicographer of the 1960s: Penny Silva

On this blog, we have explored the lives and careers of lexicographers who have contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary and others of Oxford’s dictionary ‘family’ from the 1920s to the 1950s. In this post, former OED Director Penny Silva shares an insight into her 50-year lexicographical career, which began with an offer to work on the creation of a historical dictionary of South African English in 1969.

In 1969 I was an English Linguistics Honours student at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, when my Professor, William Branford, asked me whether I’d be interested in working on a research project towards a historical dictionary of South African English.

Professor Branford and his wife, Jean, were in contact with Robert Burchfield of the OED, and had been OED consultants on South African English for several years. The question now was whether there was enough South African English to create an OED-like, single-volume dictionary.

As I had no employment on the horizon, and loved English studies, I enthusiastically agreed; but first spent five months travelling in the USA and UK, during which I visited Oxford, shrouded in snow, for the first time.

In mid-1970 I started work, reading widely to search out the evidence: Rhodes University has a large collection of 19th-century settler manuscripts, as well as earlier published journals by travellers and explorers, ideal fodder for the historical lexicographer. The essential evidence, a collection of filing cards (‘slips’), began to grow, and the prime candidates for the dictionary began to show themselves. Jean Branford joined part-time, and an editorial committee supervised our work. By 1971 we’d started creating entries for the oldest and best-established words: kraal, veld, koppie, bonsella, sjambok—and a host of names for topography, fauna, and flora. We worked on paper, and then, having no proper database, keyed the entries into word-processing software. It was all pretty basic. But we did have the connection to the OED, and Robert Burchfield commented (sometimes acerbically!) on both style and content.

At the end of 1973 I went off to have a baby, having completed 1,000 drafted entries. We moved away, and for 16 years I had nothing to do with lexicography, except for keeping an eye open for evidence to send to the Dictionary Unit. The bug had bitten.

In 1989 we returned to the small university city, and I rejoined the Dictionary Unit, becoming the Director in 1990. Professor Branford suggested that I go to Oxford, to negotiate a publishing contract and show our work to the OED editors. With more solid and longer-term funding from the South African government, we could grow the staff in order to edit the quite substantial body of work that had been created during the 70s and 80s, and draft additional entries. Our staff of five worked brilliantly together, having a range of interests and abilities. We received invaluable expert advice and encouragement from Edmund Weiner of the OED, especially once we had linked to the internet and email, in 1991.

I was new to project management, and estimated the revision time by measuring the length in feet of the slips collection; seeing what we could edit in a month; and dividing that into the total length: = 5 years! As I said earlier: very basic. But it worked. The contract committed us to completing the dictionary in five years, and in January 1995 we made history by sending the 8,500-odd word-processed files by FTP to Oxford—via OUP employee Jeffery Triggs in New Jersey, who converted the electronic text into a string of tagged sgml, which was then forwarded to Oxford. The dictionary was published in August 1996, forming part of an OUP historical dictionary ‘family’, along with the existing Australian National Dictionary and the imminent Dictionary of New Zealand English and Dictionary of Caribbean English. We then worked on a dictionary for second-language school-children.

In 1998 I was recruited to join the OED revision project in Oxford. My husband was employed as vicar of St. Michael’s, Abingdon, and by January 1999 we had moved countries, tearing two reluctant teenagers away from friends and the South African summer holidays, and leaving two older siblings to join us later.

I was Deputy Chief Editor, managing 6 revision groups. It was like being in charge of a cruise-ship after sailing a dinghy. In 2000 OED Online was launched, with a great deal of press coverage. In 2001 I was appointed OED Director, to my terror. My priority was replacing our increasingly unreliable editorial software. I undertook staff reorganization to set up a design team, and the Press granted the funding for this project. The complex new software suite, ‘Pasadena’, was commissioned in mid-2005, after which I decided to return to hands-on lexicography. After initially managing OED projects such as the reading programme, library research, and consultancy, in order to streamline them, I went through the intensive OED editorial training, and returned to full-time editing, retiring in 2010—a year before the regulations changed and one’s age no longer dictated retirement.

I now work part-time, making any necessary changes to the revised and published OED text: a lovely completion to a very happy lexicographical life.

Header image: Penny Silva. OED Archives, copyright Norman McBeath

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