Oxford lexicographers of the 1950s: Raymond Goffin, Jennifer Dawson, and Joyce Hawkins
The 1950s saw the resumption of English-language lexicography at Oxford University Press after a hiatus of two decades. Senior figures at OUP came to the conclusion that it was time that the large one-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, which had appeared in 1933, was revised. The revived project got under way in earnest in 1955, when Raymond Goffin arrived in Oxford to do some preparatory work.
Goffin was something of an OUP veteran. He had started working for the Press in 1927, when he was appointed manager of its Bombay branch. He had in fact been born in India, in 1891, the son of a missionary; he studied English at the University of Calcutta, and at the point when he was taken on by OUP was a professor of English at Cotton College in Assam, and had already begun to publish academic articles on Chaucer. He maintained an interest in English language and literature alongside his work as a publisher; in 1934 he published an important study of Indian English, defending it as a legitimate form of the language. He became involved in OUP’s lexicographical activities in the 1940s, when a need was identified to collect quotation evidence for use in a proposed new dictionary of contemporary English; Goffin, who was by this time working in OUP’s London office, took on the task of organizing this reading programme. Although this particular dictionary project was never to come to fruition, his experience made him an obvious candidate when a similar need was identified in regard to the OED Supplement. In addition to organizing the collection of quotations, the preparatory work he was engaged to carry out also involved identifying possible new words and meanings to be included in the new Supplement.
From left: Caroline Webb, Nico Van Blerk, Robert Burchfield, Raymond Goffin
Goffin was not, however, being taken on as the Editor of the new Supplement. Various people were considered for this role; it had originally been tentatively assigned to James Wyllie, whose sad tale is told in an earlier article in this series. When it became clear that Wyllie was out of contention for the Editorship, the job was then offered to Alan Horsman, who, however, abandoned it in favour of an academic position in his native New Zealand after only a few months. The Editorship eventually went to another New Zealander, Robert Burchfield – who had no idea when he took on the job, in 1957, that it would occupy him for nearly three decades. In 1984, as the new Supplement – now grown to four volumes – was nearing completion – he paid tribute to Goffin as the ‘rather superior Man Friday’ who had been the only member of his staff when he arrived at OUP, feeling ‘like a pioneer arriving in a new colony’.
Other ‘pioneers’ would soon join the ‘colony’: the compilation of the Supplement would clearly need a sizeable staff of lexicographers. Burchfield had been advised to take on ‘two good girls of clerical type’, but his first recruit proved to have rather more to her than that: a recent graduate from St Anne’s College called Jennifer Dawson (pictured below left). She had in fact had a troubled time as an undergraduate, suffering a breakdown which caused her to spend several months in the Warneford Mental Hospital; she subsequently taught at a convent in France before taking up the job on the Supplement. However, her health remained fragile, and she worked alongside Raymond Goffin for less than a year.
After leaving OUP in August 1958 she went on to work briefly in a psychiatric hospital in Worcester, and then returned to academia, this time studying philosophy at University College London. But it was as a novelist that she was soon to make her name: her first novel, The Ha-Ha, appeared in 1961 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She went on to publish six further novels and several other works, but achieved only modest success before her death in 2000, though The Ha-Ha has continued to be praised for its exploration of mental illness, clearly drawing on Dawson’s own experiences both as a mental health professional and as a patient. It contains very little that hints at her brief stint of lexicography: the narrator refers to having ‘once nearly bec[o]me a philological researcher’, and there is a passing reference (which might not be expected in such a novel) to the Ormulum – the important early Middle English text which Burchfield had taken as the subject of his postgraduate research – but nothing else with particular resonance for the OED.
Another lexicographer who proved to have rather more staying power joined the staff just after Jennifer Dawson left. Joyce Hawkins (pictured below right) was an unusual recruit, in that she already had some lexicographical experience: after studying classics at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, she had spent some years working on a dictionary of Patristic Greek (the Greek used by early Christian writers in the first few centuries AD), which was eventually published by OUP in 1961. She was soon involved in the preparation of the first page of specimen entries for the new Supplement; but there was in fact very little actual compilation of dictionary entries during the first few years of Burchfield’s editorship, as the main activity was the accumulation of a new mass of quotation slips which would serve as the raw material for these entries in due course. (Joyce was a significant contributor to this reading programme; one of her assigned tasks was to read most of the works of P. G. Wodehouse for the Supplement.) The compilation of entries only began in earnest in 1961 – which was also the year when OUP at last published the Patristic Greek Lexicon on which Joyce had worked.
And then in December 1967, just over nine years after she had started work on the Supplement, Joyce Hawkins abruptly left the project. The exact reason for her departure is unclear: it seems she may have become dissatisfied with the nature of her work, and there had also been quarrels with other members of staff. (Raymond Goffin, incidentally, was no longer one of these: he had retired in 1960.) Her lexicographical activities recommenced almost immediately elsewhere in OUP: work was found for her on a new edition of the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, a one-volume dictionary with substantial encyclopedic content. She went on to become one of the most able of all of OUP’s compilers of ‘small dictionaries’, producing over a dozen titles before her retirement in 1991, including the Oxford Paperback Dictionary, the Oxford Minidictionary, and several dictionaries for schools; she also appeared briefly in ‘Dictionary Corner’ in the very early days of Countdown (a durable television game show which will need no introduction to British readers). Television cannot have been a comfortable medium for her, as she was really rather a shy person; she was, however, an enthusiastic user of her own camera, and the OED’s archive would be much poorer in photographs of recent lexicographers were it not for the albums that Joyce contributed to it. Fortunately, we do also have photographs of her. She is the first of the lexicographers I have written about in this series that I actually worked with, and I remember her with affection and respect. She died in 1992.
Read about OED editor Penny Silva, who began her lexicography career in the 1960s, in this blog post.
Header: Joyce Hawkins; OUP Archives
Centre: Caroline Webb, Nico Van Blerk, Robert Burchfield, and Raymond Goffin; OUP Archives
Bottom left: Jennifer Dawson; photographed by Cynthia Bradford
Bottom right: Joyce Hawkins; OUP Archives
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