The art of reading for the OED: Colin Bagnall

The art of reading for the OED: Colin Bagnall

Over the ‘art of reading for the OED‘ blog series, readers Ruth Mateer, Joy Winnington, John Healey, Vivienne Painting, and Chuck Deodene have shared insights into the various delights of their work with the OED‘s Reading Programmes.

In this post, Colin Bagnall, a reader for the Scholarly Reading Programme (SRP), talks us through the texts, topics, and words that have stuck with him throughout his work with the programme:

How did you come to work for the Reading Programmes?

Pure chance. I had just retired early and was looking through our newspaper’s careers pages one day, for the first and only time and not for myself but for my son, when I happened to see an advertisement saying the OED was being fully revised and editors were needed for a ten-year contract, based in Oxford. I said to him, ‘Now, that’s a job I would have liked to have done!’, but, as it was not practical for me to meet either requirement, I forgot about it.

Or thought I had. Ten days later, unable to shake off the idea, I wrote in enquiring about part-time work. I received a standard reply saying that if the Editor wished to proceed I would hear by such-and-such a date. The date came and went, so that was that – or so I thought. A day or so later I received another letter. It was from Edmund Weiner. He said come and see us for a chat. I did. That was 25 years (come April), over 20 reading-texts and many thousands of slips ago.

My son didn’t find a job for another six months.

Why do you work on the RP?

I like words. I like the fact that I am making a contribution, however small, to the greatest work of scholarship in the world. And, until recently, I liked the idea that the mental exercise might, like doing crosswords, stave off ‘cognitive decline’. Annoyingly, empirical research has just disproved that theory.

What are your favourite aspects of the work?

Probably working up close with OED’s arrays of quotations – snatches of voice on the winds of the past. And finding new words and antedatings: on a bleak Monday morning, there’s nothing like a hefty antedating to send you on your way rejoicing.

What sorts of texts do you find most fruitful? Most enjoyable?

The most fruitful texts are in general the glossary/vocabulary type. Jacob Brobart’s Catologus Plantarum Horti Medici Oxoniensis, for example (the 1648 catalogue of the trees and plants in what later became the Oxford Botanic Garden), yielded an astounding average of 27 slips a page. This compares with the lower yields, usually, of texts where the subject is the language, as in Charles Barber’s Early Modern English, which produced a meagre 1.7. Julie Coleman’s four-volume History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, although producing over 8,000 slips, had a page rate of only about five. Relatively small sections, however, of Theodore Visser’s monumental Historical Syntax of the English Language also yielded over 8,000 slips on verbs and verbal idioms – starting with tasty topics like ‘Syntactical units with one verb – the complement of the copulas’ and ending with the mouth-watering ‘Five-verb units with the verb have used twice’.

As for enjoyment, everything has been of interest, from the layer-by-layer anatomizing of the body linguistic by Visser to Yaxley’s obsolete dialect words for parts of a plough in fourteenth-century Norfolk.

The most enjoyable texts have been those which relate to a congenial subject – Hilda Hulme’s Explorations in Shakespeare’s Language, for example, and Brobart’s Catologus – the latter partly because the Botanic Garden is a place in which I have spent many pleasant hours and partly because I like unusual plant names like Grimme the Collierand impatient ladies smockes; the exotic flesh colour’d flower of Constantinople and double scarlet anemone of Bithinia; the herbal sneezewort, foolish hemlock and all-heal of Hercules, and the tell-it-like-it-is Creeping Arsmart (‘because if it touch the taile or other bare skinne, it maketh it smart, as often it doth, being laid into the bed greene to kill fleas’).

Julie Coleman’s History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries was enjoyable in a broader way, since she places the secret language of deception and concealment in its social context of underworld life and contemporary reactions to crime. These volumes are full of lively terms – some childlike (cobble-colter, a turkey; popplers, porridge), some more artful (a man in the pillory is a babe in the wood; a forger who alters numbers on bank-notes a figure-dancer). Kittle pitchering is ‘a jocular method of hobbling or bothering a troublesome teller of long stories’, and to snichel the Gigg is to ‘Fillip him on the Nose’. A running-smobble is ‘a Lay Two or Three have together, one of ‘em running into a Shop, when People are in a Back-Room, or busie behind a Counter, snatching up something, conveys it to one of his nimble Comrades, and trip it away as fast as a Race-Horse over New-Market-Heath.   

Could you pick out a favourite text?

That would be David Yaxley’s A Researcher’s Glossary of words found in historical documents of East Anglia – Norfolk country life in 5,000 objects, as it were, over five centuries and with lots of context. It’s an interesting and pleasant world.

There are some nice terms here, too: feather-driver (‘the man who fluffed up the feathers of a featherbed’), mud scuppet (‘shovel with a concave blade for digging out waterlogged ditches’), hysterical julep (a sweet drink containing medicine to counter hysteria). There are some good antedatings – kitchen-knife by 439 years, brassard (arm armour) by 478, sill (a framing-timber in a cart) by 563. And there is a brush with historical events at Wymondham: ‘[for] carying ij loods of calyon [flints, round stone] from the late abbey to the chapell .. dyggyng of Freston [freestone] & calyon in the seid late abbey’. The date is 1541-2.

Has working for the RP given you knowledge of subjects you wouldn’t have otherwise encountered, or introduced you to new perspectives?

George Redmonds’s Vocabulary of Coal Mining in Yorkshire is certainly a source of the first. Far from simply presenting a word-list, he provides full explanations of the terms from Yorkshire’s long history of coal-mining, so that as one goes through the glossary, the reality of the process in the early days is gradually revealed –  the hewers hacking at the coal with their picks by candlelight at the bank (coalface) and loading it with their bottom shoules (underground shovels) into corves (wicker baskets); the hurriers, often women or children, hauling these on all fours on sleds or waggons past the puncheons (props) and along the low, narrow, uneven gates (galleries) to the pit eye (bottom of the shaft) where the corves were hooked onto a  rope and hauled up to the groundfield (surface) by a banksman with a gin (hoist).

Because of the closeness of its detail, this book brought home to me more vividly than before the horrendous working conditions and ever-present dangers for miners in the early (and to some extent later) days – as in Leeds, for example, in 1597:Richard Mankenoole sonn smored [suffocated] with the dampe and buryed; in Swillington, in 1764: Thomas Atkinson Labourer, Slain, by a Coal waggon running over him; and in Almondbury, in 1755, where Thomas Pickering was working in a Colepit and the roof of Cole fell upon him … about a tun weight … and he was dead when they found him.

Has there been a new word or meaning of a word you’ve come across that gave you pause for thought, or stuck with you?

There have been many. Fearnothing, a Norfolk word for ‘thick woollen cloth, used in rough weather on ships, etc.’, is one I liked – I think I might call my M&S car-coat my Fearnothing. Another was for something at the business end of a fishing line. Who would have thought there would be a special word for when it’s a worm? But there is. It cropped up in a manuscript dated c.1300, in the plural and in the unexpected context of herbal remedies, as anguiltwychis. It took me a while to unmask that one. It’s angletwitch. Bit graphic, but it does the job.

Read the next post in the series with Historical Programme reader John Birchall.

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