OED editors of the 1920s: Jessie Coulson and James Wyllie

OED editors of the 1920s: Jessie Coulson and James Wyllie

Among the people who started work on the OED in the 1920s were two who went on to have careers of some significance for Oxford lexicography in very different ways: Jessie Senior (later Coulson) (1903–87) and James Wyllie (1907–71).

The first woman named on an Oxford dictionary’s title page

Jessie Coulson

First to arrive – in fact the first new recruit to the Dictionary’s staff since J. R. R. Tolkien in 1919 – was Jessie Senior. She was taken on in 1924, fresh from graduating in English at the University of Leeds (where she was almost certainly taught by Tolkien, who was a member of the English faculty there until 1925). To start with, her principal work appears to have been on the one-volume Supplement to the first edition of the Dictionary, which eventually appeared in 1933, five years after the final fascicle of the Dictionary itself. She later also made a substantial contribution to some of the OED’s ‘children, including the 626-page Little Oxford Dictionary – which she saw through to publication in 1930 after the death of its main compiler George Ostler – and the rather larger Shorter OED, the first edition of which appeared in February 1933, a few months before the OED Supplement. As such it was the first Oxford dictionary to bear a woman’s name on the title page. Her name was by now Coulson: she had married Edward Coulson, a research chemist, in 1929.

After the publication of the Supplement, Jessie Coulson moved away from Oxford, living for some years in Teddington (Middlesex); but she continued to be a valuable lexicographer for OUP. As well as preparing revised editions of the Little Oxford, she was in on the start of another of Oxford’s smaller dictionaries, one which – innovatively for the 1930s – contained encyclopedic material as well as conventional ‘lexical’ entries. This dictionary was eventually passed on to other lexicographers, only reaching publication (as the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary) in 1962. By this time she was back in Oxford, and had joined the team working on the new edition of the Shorter OED that eventually appeared in 1973. As if English lexicography was not enough, she also compiled a Russian-English dictionary which appeared in 1975. In fact she had been translating Russian literary classics for OUP since the 1950s: her translation of Crime and Punishment (1953) was followed by several other Dostoyevsky texts, and works by Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, and others. She died in 1987.

The sad tale of the (unofficial) ‘Lexicographer to the University of Oxford’

James McLeod Wyllie’s lexicographical career was shorter, but both more spectacular and more tragic. He was born into a poor Scottish family, the son of a Kincardineshire farm labourer, but earned a place at Aberdeen University, where he gained a first-class degree in classics in 1928. The following year he was recommended to William Craigie, the OED’s senior surviving Editor, as a possible addition to the staff of the Supplement, and proved to be an able and efficient worker, although his relationships with some of his fellow lexicographers were not always smooth: at one point he was even permitted to carry out some of his lexicographical work in Aberdeen, apparently as a way of avoiding conflict. Whether or not he was a ‘difficult’ person, he certainly impressed his employers, who began to see him as someone who might be capable of editing a dictionary himself. On completion of the Supplement, OUP signed him up to work on a large new Latin dictionary; but he remained closely involved with the OED, and even more so with the family of smaller English dictionaries, maintaining paper files of corrections with the aim of keeping all of the different dictionaries up to date with one another, and also acting as a consultant on new projects such as the encyclopedic dictionary (he provided detailed comments on the materials drafted by Jessie Coulson). He took to referring to himself on occasion by the (unofficial) title of ‘Lexicographer to the University of Oxford’, and also ‘Acting Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary’.

Wyllie continued to be highly thought of by his employers, and in 1939 he was made Co-Editor of the Oxford Latin Dictionary. However, his relationships with colleagues were becoming increasingly fraught. On the outbreak of the Second World War he seized the chance to escape from his troubles by signing up; after a short period in the Royal Artillery he was transferred to Bletchley Park, where he spent several years as a ‘codebreaker’. He was not the only lexicographer to have been active in this area though he did manage, uniquely, to combine the two activities by compiling a glossary of the jargon used by the Bletchley cryptographers. After the war he returned to Latin lexicography, and in 1949 was made sole Editor of the Oxford Latin Dictionary, despite mounting concern about his psychological state.

By 1953 senior figures at OUP had begun to think seriously about the resumption of work on the OED, which had effectively stopped in 1933: they decided that the way forward was to revise and expand the 1933 Supplement, and Wyllie was pencilled in as the likely editor of this project once he could be spared from his Latin work. However, only a few months later disaster struck: Wyllie had what appears to have been a serious mental breakdown – he claimed to have undergone a transcendental religious experience, and to have had a revelation about a means of eliminating pain, disease, and war from the world. By the spring of 1954 it had become clear that he could not be entrusted with responsibility for either the Oxford Latin Dictionary or any new project, and he was relieved of his post. He never fully recovered from this breakdown; the loss to Oxford lexicography of this talented but flawed man is hard to overestimate. He died in 1971.

Read about J. L. N. O’Loughlin and Herbert Le Mesurier, lexicographers of the 1930s, in this blog post.

Pictured: Jessie Coulson, © OUP

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