Oxford lexicographers of the 1930s: J. L. N. O’Loughlin and Herbert Le Mesurier

Oxford lexicographers of the 1930s: J. L. N. O’Loughlin and Herbert Le Mesurier

As the 1930s began, after many years of being the centre of operations for the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the ‘Dictionary Room’ in the Old Ashmolean, in the heart of Oxford, was occupied by those working on the one-volume Supplement to the Dictionary. After the publication of the Supplement in 1933 this great hive of lexicographical activity shifted its focus from English to Latin; and in fact the compilation of English dictionaries in Oxford came to a temporary halt, only to resume over twenty years later. In this article we look at one of the last people to join the staff of the Supplement, and also at one of a new kind of ‘Oxford lexicographer’ – someone working far from Oxford.

Oxford, Odhams, and overseas

In 1931, soon after graduating with an Oxford English degree, John Leslie Noble O’Loughlin was taken on by Charles Onions to work on the Supplement: one of the last people to join the staff before its publication. He combined his lexicography with some university teaching, and also with being an assistant librarian at the English faculty; he ended up working with J. R. R. Tolkien – a former OED lexicographer, now the University’s Professor of Anglo-Saxon – on the reorganization of part of the faculty’s library. In fact he formed a firm friendship with Tolkien which lasted over several decades. (The friendship may have arisen through their shared interest in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry, a subject on which O’Loughlin continued to publish articles throughout his career.)

He flourished under Onions’s tutelage, and soon after his appointment was permitted to revise the work of other lexicographers and to send copy to the printers with only minimal alteration by Onions. However, the supply of lexicographical work was soon to dry up: O’Loughlin left the staff in late 1932, by which time the bulk of editorial work on the Supplement was complete. He subsequently secured a position in Oxford as a lecturer in English. During the Second World War he worked for the Ministry of Information; after the war he moved to New York, and worked for several years in the Rockefeller Center, for the British Information Services, a kind of propaganda unit of the Foreign Office. He returned to the UK in 1952, becoming First Secretary at the Foreign Office. (His academic work continued in parallel with his work as a civil servant: 1952 also saw the publication of his article on ‘Beowulf – its unity and purpose’.) He retired in 1967.

He also managed to fit in one other significant piece of lexicography after leaving the OED. In the 1940s he was recommended by Charles Onions to the publisher Odhams as a suitable person to finish an English dictionary for them which had been begun by another friend and former pupil of Tolkien’s, the Old English scholar A. H. Smith. The dictionary appeared in 1946 as Odhams Dictionary of the English Language.

Le Mesurier OED handwritingImage: an extract from a 1934 letter written by Le Mesurier, ©OUP

‘Word-Fancier’ and ‘born lexicographer’

The lexicographical career of Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Grenville Le Mesurier (1873–1940) was very different, in that he began it more or less at the end of his professional career as a soldier, most of which he spent in India. While based in Simla he had begun a correspondence with H. W. Fowler, one of the two brothers who had produced the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a book of which he was a great admirer. After retiring to Somerset in 1922 he read and commented on a pre-publication copy of Fowler’s famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926); he also provided some input during the preparation of the second edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which appeared in 1929.

But it was in the 1930s that his involvement with Oxford University Press and its dictionary publishing began in earnest. He read and commented on proofs of the OED Supplement, and in 1931, when Fowler was looking for someone to share with him the task of compiling a new dictionary – then provisionally called the ‘Quarto Oxford Dictionary’ but later given the title Oxford Dictionary of Modern English – he identified Le Mesurier as a suitable collaborator. In 1932 OUP published a rather different work by Le Mesurier himself: a book of crossword puzzles entitled Pattern and Patchwork (which was dedicated to Fowler as fellow ‘Word-Fancier’). In 1933 Fowler also recommended him for the job of compiling supplements of additional vocabulary as a way of updating both the Concise and the Pocket Oxford. These sets of ‘Addenda’ duly appeared – those in the Concise running to over sixty pages – in 1934, by which time Fowler had died; the task of completing the Oxford Dictionary of Modern English now fell to Le Mesurier and Fowler’s younger brother Arthur. Unfortunately this project was never to come to fruition: Arthur Fowler died in 1939, just after the outbreak of war, and Le Mesurier only survived him by a few months. He had managed to see another new edition of the Pocket Oxford through the press before he died.

A warm tribute was paid to him by OUP’s former chief executive, R. W. Chapman, some years after his death (coincidentally in an article reviewing the Odhams dictionary edited by O’Loughlin): ‘Le Mesurier used to protest that he was no scholar; and he had had no scholar’s education [he had in fact gone to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich rather than to university]. But he was a born lexicographer. […] He had an amazing grasp of the vocabulary, and not the vocabulary only of the sciences, the trades, the stage, the film, the American language.’ His only recreations, according to Chapman, were solving acrostics and composing crosswords. But he had of course managed to turn another aspect of his ‘recreational’ interest in words into something more serious: lexicography of a high standard.

Header image: quotation slip for ‘tangoist‘ written by O’Loughlin, ©OUP

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