An Oxford lexicographer of the 1940s: Hereward Price

An Oxford lexicographer of the 1940s: Hereward Price

As the previous article in this series explained, Oxford University Press called a temporary halt to its activities in English-language lexicography in Oxford during the 1930s, although there continued to be ‘Oxford lexicographers’ working on Latin dictionaries in Oxford, and on English dictionaries elsewhere in England. This was still the case in the 1940s; but another ‘Oxford lexicographer’ was flourishing elsewhere during this decade – and working on some of the most important English historical lexicography going on at that time. However, his lexicographical career began five decades earlier, and the story of his earlier life – lexicographical and non-lexicographical – makes quite a tale.

Even the birthplace of Hereward Thimbleby Price takes some telling. He was born in 1880 in the Madagascar settlement of Ambatolahinandrianisiahana, where his father Charles Price was a Christian missionary who had come to Madagascar in 1875. Charles had been a pupil at Mill Hill School, where one of his teachers had been James Murray, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first Editor, and himself contributed to the Dictionary by supplying some quotations from a textbook on electricity. The family returned to England, and young Hereward seems to have been taken onto the staff of the Dictionary by Murray as a clerical assistant while he was still a schoolboy. He continued to work in the Scriptorium while studying for a degree at Oxford. He took a particular interest in German, and in 1904 – by which time he had become a very competent lexicographer – he left the Dictionary to pursue his studies in Germany. In due course he secured a position teaching English at the University of Bonn, where he earned a doctorate. He married a German woman in 1911 and became a German citizen – which meant that when the First World War broke out he was eligible to be conscripted into the German army. He joined the infantry in 1915, and was sent to the Eastern Front.

It is at this point that his most remarkable adventures began. In the summer of 1915 he was captured by the Russians; eventually, after a journey that ultimately lasted six months, he ended up in a prison camp in Siberia. In the turmoil that followed the Russian Revolution in 1917 he eventually escaped from Russia, and somehow found his way to China, where he was for a time sheltered by James Murray’s son Jowett, then a missionary and a teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin. From there he made his way back to Europe; there was some suggestion that he might return to work on the OED, but the Dictionary’s senior Editor, Henry Bradley – James Murray had died in 1915 – worried that ‘among the staff there will be no friendly feeling towards an Englishman who has denaturalized himself and married a German’.

Instead he returned to Germany, and taught for several years at the University of Kiel; he also found time to write a memoir of his wartime adventures – evocatively entitled Boche and Bolshevik – and to immerse himself once again in lexicography, compiling a bilingual German-English dictionary of economic terms. In 1929 he secured a professorial position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he also joined a team of lexicographers engaged in the compilation of a dictionary of early modern English (covering roughly the period 1475–1700). This was one of a number of dictionary projects which could truly be said to be ‘offspring’ of the OED: it was originally proposed – as one of a number of dictionaries focusing on particular periods or varieties of English – by the OED’s third Editor, William Craigie, and quotations from the OED’s own files were extracted and sent to America to provide the new project with initial data. Price worked on the Early Modern English Dictionary for the next decade; however, in 1939 work on this dictionary was suspended in order to concentrate effort on another dictionary also being compiled at Ann Arbor, namely the Middle English Dictionary (MED), which had also been proposed by Craigie, and had also been given a ‘starter collection’ of quotation evidence from the OED’s files. Price was devastated, and wrote bitterly to William Craigie of the ‘muddle, incompetence, ignorance and stupidity’ of the decision, which would mean that ‘ten years of the hardest work I have ever done’ would go to waste. However, in 1940 he transferred to the staff of the MED, where he continued with his lexicography for another decade.

In 1945, following the retirement of the dictionary’s chief editor, Thomas Knott, through illness, Price was appointed as acting chief editor. He was aware that this was a caretaker role, and that a younger man was needed; various names were put forward – at one point Price himself suggested inviting J. R. R. Tolkien, another OED veteran, over from England – but the following year the position was awarded to an Austrian émigré named Hans Kurath: much to the disgust of Price, who regarded Kurath as thoroughly unsuitable, and declared that he would find it impossible to work with him. In fact there was one other lexicographical project which was to benefit from his input before his retirement in 1949: he oversaw the final editing of the text of his Michigan colleague M. P. Tilley’s dictionary of Early Modern proverbs following Tilley’s death in 1947. He remained academically active during his retirement, publishing articles on reviews on various subjects – notably Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists – until shortly before his death in 1964.

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