The art of reading for the OED: John Birchall

The art of reading for the OED: John Birchall

In the final post of our ‘the art of reading for the OED’ series, John Birchall, a reader for the OED’s Historical Reading Programme (HRP), explains what makes a good reader and how seventeenth-century prose introduced him to new perspectives:

How did you come to work for the Reading Programmes? How important is your educational and/or professional background to your work?

I joined the in-house staff of the OED in 1996, after completing a PhD in Ancient Greek language and literature, and remained until 1999. A year or two later, I enquired about freelance work for the OED. The readers’ job seemed an enviable one. Of several freelance tasks I have worked on, work on the Historical Reading Programme (HRP) is the one which has continued every month until the time of writing. The key educational background which informs my HRP work is the training which I received when on the staff of the OED. A background in classical philology is not hugely important aside from the value of academic training which could be acquired in a various disciplines, although the ability to read Latin or Greek is sometimes useful. More obviously relevant to HRP is specialist knowledge of topics one may encounter in sources which are being read. A legal training enables me to identify and often explain lexical points of interest in legal contexts; and some training in sailing sheds light on nautical language of centuries past.

Why do you work on the RP?

As a child I supposed—oddly, perhaps—that writing dictionaries would be an absorbing pursuit. Since the first day I set foot in the OUP office, I have never lost the sense that to contribute is a privilege. [Sir James] Murray, we are told, considered his much greater contribution to the dictionary to be a vocation from God. Perhaps it is just my fate.

Not everyone can do what you do—what do you think makes a good reader?

Much the same skills are required for reading as are required for historical lexicography generally: an ability to identify the kinds of lexical distinctions, identify parts of speech, and interpret passages of English which are not immediately clear; above all, a sense for what is lexically interesting, and a pragmatic grasp of how a dictionary might be used and of what it can and cannot provide. Since it is the task of HRP readers to read sources, and check any potentially interesting word or usage we come across against what is already in OED, in order to decide whether its coverage is already adequate, or whether the quotation we have found should be recorded for possible use in a future revision, familiarity with what is already in OED for the period of the source in hand is a useful guide to what is worth lingering over, and what is not. Familiarity is acquired only by experience.

How do you recognize a ‘good’ quote?

In most cases in HRP, a quote which contains some information not already in OED must be recorded, whether or not it is ‘good.’ It is not unusual to find multiple examples of an interesting word or usage in a source and the best quote must be selected. The kind of quote where the author defines a word is less useful than a quote where he or she uses that term in a context which makes its sense clear. A quote where an author defines a word may be preferred, or recorded in addition to a contextual quote, where the lexical item cannot be understood sufficiently without it. Very occasionally a quotation is so appealing (for example because it records an early example of a proverb, still in use, which is not necessarily within scope for inclusion in OED) that it may be recorded even where it is not strictly required by our guidelines.

How is reading for the reading programme different than for pleasure? For example, do you have to read slower, reread things, pay more attention to what you’re reading?

A text of several hundred pages with almost no new lexical interest must be skimmed, if it is read at all, and generally in skimming I find the sense is not grasped, neither is there time to reflect on the fine distinctions relating to the grounds of salvation, infant baptism, or the justification for legal enforcement of tithes, which seventeenth-century texts often deal with in unimaginable detail. If I start finding quotations which are worth recording, I might slow down to give the source a greater opportunity to render up its treasure, however rebarbative is subject matter. A text which is productive should be read slowly and with care because grasping the content increases the chances of identifying a usage which has a sufficient chance of being lexically interesting to be worth looking up and OED to review how well it is already covered. Exceptionally worthwhile texts, which merit the most careful reading, can be enjoyed while they are being mined for lexicon, even though one’s primary attention is different than when reading for pleasure.

Could you pick out a favourite text? If so, why?

I am particularly attracted, among the material I have been reading in recent years, to John Crouch, the author of bawdy satirical periodicals presented like newspapers, most notably Mercurius Democritus and Mercurius Fumigosus. Through his Lucianic humour shines a wryly indulgent humanity, and a picture of London life, be it the pleasure gardens at Islington, or the methods whereby prostitutes extracted from customers very much more than the anticipated fee, which is found nowhere else.

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?

The language of various métiers persists. Lawyers anyway like language which is so archaic that it seems obsolete to lay persons. When I read old reports of litigation, often abused to browbeat a poorer litigant, and the constant proposals to deal with excessive complexity and costs in legal proceedings  (a problem which has still not be solved entirely), I encounter some vocabulary which is now unfamiliar, and some which has survived. For example, in the seventeenth century as today, there was a tendency to say ‘at Law’ but ‘in Equity’; and more subtle distinctions in the mannerisms of speech, and the style of thought, between lawyers who work mainly in the Chancery Division and those who work largely in the Common Law courts, have deep linguistic roots. The same linguistic roots can be found in many other fields. Much of the language of Parliament was already in use during the Interregnum. The same goes for mechanical fields. When I was taught to sail yachts by a retired naval officer, I started to hear instructions like, ‘He’s got the wind of us and is carrying a lot of sail. Still, we’re only drawing 1.8 metres and we’ve got plenty of sea room. Stand on and take bearings.’ In accounts of naval battles, often written by officers on board, I saw that much of the same language would have been understood by a seventeenth century sailor, in addition to names for things like marlin spikes and top gallants which have now largely fallen into desuetude. He would not have had a hand compass, and would have had guns, so instead of ‘take bearings’ the instruction might have been ‘stand on and clear the decks’ (to be ready for battle).

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

I have read something like half the Thomason Tracts – a collection of books and pamphlets and newspapers assembled by a London bookseller from the middle of the seventeenth century – in the course of over fifteen years. Perhaps I may be forgiven for taking a quotation attributed in Wikipedia to Thomas Carlyle to describe this collection of books and ephemera: ‘the most valuable set of documents connected with English history; greatly preferable to all the sheepskins in the Tower and other places, for informing the English what the English were in former times; I believe the whole secret of the seventeenth century is involved in that hideous mass of rubbish there.’ The collection—yes, there is much hideous rubbish there—arguably contains the secret of the segment of the century to which it relates, from the political decline and show trial of Charles I, through a period when anyone from the monarchy-supporting part of the population risked being branded an enemy of the people if they spoke out, through disillusion with the Commonwealth to Restoration. It is an odd experience, reading a period almost exclusively through primary sources, with little prior knowledge of the history. I feel I now know the thumbprints of mid-seventeenth-century English prose as well as anyone. Diverse as styles are, even between newspaper editors, there are certain ways of putting things which are typical; a set of styles which include some very modern-feeling turns of phrase and grammatical constructions, and exclude others which had not yet come into use.

The political environment influenced language. The bipartisanship of the Civil War period, which has long been a feature of British and American politics, was of course dreadful and destructive in many ways. The Welsh, traduced typically as toasted cheese-eaters, apparently an indication of their supposed reluctance to fight when they could be eating cheese, were sometimes satirized as preferring comfort to war; the Highlanders by contrast were considered a formidable if backward mountain-adapted enemy by the English who worked to subdue Scotland with the stated reason of pre-empting a repeat of the invasion of England of 1642 by ‘Jockey’ (the Scots). The lawlessness of the Irish Tories, apparently a mix of political terrorists and organized robbers, and the failure of the English armies and settlers to bring peace in spite of their harsh methods, are clear, although almost all the texts are from English, and largely Parliamentarian pens: because newspapers had foreign correspondents, we probably hear more of the Dutch point of view, during England’s intermittent naval wars with the Dutch, than of the points of view of the native Irish, Welsh, Scots, or even at times of the Royalists. In reading I have become more aware of some of the roots of themes which cast long shadows.

Find out more about the OED’s Reading Programmes, and read interviews with our readers on the art of reading for the OED.

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