Professor Eric Stanley (1923-2018)

Professor Eric Stanley (1923-2018)

His many friends at the Oxford English Dictionary were saddened to hear of the death of Professor Eric Stanley of Pembroke College, Oxford, and until his retirement (in 1991) Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford.

Although he was never himself part of OED’s staff, the dictionary was part of Eric’s academic life since his undergraduate days in the 1940s. He learnt his craft from lectures by such luminaries as J. R. R. Tolkien, and he would often retell anecdotes (and gossip) about the OED’s earliest editors that he had heard from his tutors and advisers, particularly from Elizabeth Stefanyja Ross (née Olszewska), who worked for Onions and Craigie on the late stages of the first edition of the OED and its 1933 Supplement. Already by 1957 Eric was himself involved in collecting materials for the four-volume Supplement to the OED, and he was among those invited to comment on the first specimen proofs for the Supplement in 1962. He and Robert Burchfield, editor of the Supplement, were the same age, and became close friends, Burchfield even teaching Stanley to drive (a skill he continued to put to use with wide-ranging journeys across continental Europe until well into his last decade, stopping off to attend conferences, give guest lectures, or visit art museums).

Professor Eric Stanley

John Simpson, later OED’s chief editor, recalls becoming familiar with Eric’s comments on Supplement proofs in the late 1970s: “Each consultant had an individual style and would focus in on particular problems. Some were minutely painstaking and others more broadbrush. Eric tended towards the broadbrush, peppering his galleys with occasional explosions of alarm when he had identified an error which Ed [Weiner] or I needed to correct. He wanted to push us all the time, leaving gaps in his comments which we had to fill in using our own intelligence (he didn’t just give us the answers). And he always said that his comments were his comments – they weren’t necessarily right, but they were necessarily his, and were presented in his unique style. The comments bore witness to the breadth of his interests – as these proofs principally covered 19th and 20th century usage. There was hardly a scrap of Old English to be found in them.”

When work began in earnest on the complete revision of the OED in the mid 1990s, we finally began to be able to send Eric material with much more than a scrap of Old English for his expert comment. With characteristic generosity and dedication to the dictionary, although he had already retired from his Oxford chair, Eric gave OED3’s fledgling team invaluable advice on shaping policy for citing and interpreting Old English for the OED. He then embarked on what amounted to almost a further quarter century of close comment on dictionary proofs, now embracing all OED entries that contained any material that dated back to Old English or early Middle English (we put the cut-off for material we sent him at around 1325). He took his brief literally, and read all of every entry that dated back to the earliest stages of English: I and my colleagues working through proof comments soon became as grateful to Eric for his acute observations on the language and culture of the seventeenth century, or the twentieth, or sometimes even the twenty-first, as we did for his (more numerous) incisive assessments of our treatment of much earlier material. His final batch of comments were on words including but, button, entry, and throw, and embraced Old English dialectology, Chaucer, and productions of Peer Gynt from the 1940s, among very much else; he despatched them on time as always, to his former research student Anthony Esposito, only a few weeks before his death.

Eric always had a particularly warm place in his heart for young lexicographers, and indeed for all young scholars. He had little patience with fools of any age, but every new generation who came into contact with him, once they had been treated to the almost inevitable repetition of his favourite aphorism that “youth is the only vice that age will heal”, found that they were in the presence of someone who would take their opinions and their ambitions seriously, and who would quietly set about acquainting them with a very long tradition of lexicographical and linguistic scholarship.

As one colleague commented, “Eric looked and sometimes sounded very much like an absent-minded professor, but you would be dangerously mistaken to take him for one. His mind was razor-sharp and he was capable of quite caustic comments on occasion; but he was entirely benevolent.” He will be very much missed by all who knew him.

Header image credit: Sian Witherden

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