The art of reading for the OED: John Healey

The art of reading for the OED: John Healey

So far in the ‘art of reading for the OED’ series, we have heard from readers Ruth Mateer and Joy Winnington about their work with the OED’s reading programmes. Here, reader John Healey shares a glimpse into the buzz of exploring scholarly and historical texts for the OED:

How did you come to work for the Reading Programmes?

In 2004 I came across several new words and new senses in my general reading of medieval history and sent quotations in. I received very kind and encouraging letters from the OED staff and I continued to submit quotations from various books I was reading. Not long after I was asked to read The Cely Letters 1472-1488. This was a rich source of material from a family of wool merchants and I was hooked. I have now submitted just over 39,000 quotations as part of both the Scholarly and Historical Reading Programmes.

Why do you work on the Reading Programmes?

I met a friend of mine on the train recently. We had not seen each other for some time and I was explaining my OED work to him. When we arrived at the terminus, a bloke sitting across the aisle (a stranger) got up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I would kill for a job like yours!’ I know just what he means.

Has working for the RP given you knowledge of subjects you wouldn’t have otherwise encountered?

Definitely. I read Francis Willughby’s Book of Games (a1672), which introduced me to a host of sports, games, and pastimes that I’d never heard of. And the correspondence of physicist Michael Faraday, chemist Robert Boyle, and the first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed provided fascinating glimpses into the stories behind so many world-changing discoveries.

And what can compare to the delight of dipping into the detailed inventory of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe, which contained items such as ‘one pettycote of ashe-colored China taffeta, embrothered allover like oaken leaves and ackhornes, and slyppes of Venyce golde, silver, and silke’. Or the diary of Philip Henslowe, the Elizabethan theatre manager, who kept meticulous accounts of all the costumes used in his playhouses?

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

In A Mirror to Devout People, a late fifteenth-century life of Christ, I came across the new word ‘unfleeable’. It was used in the phrase ‘wythoute vnfleable nede’, i.e. ‘unnecessarily’. These days we might use ‘unavoidable’ or ‘inescapable’, but these have a familiarity and hence an abstractness that renders them rather pale. If you take ‘unfleeable’ in a more literal sense, it has an immediacy and a concreteness that leaps out at you. You cannot flee from this! I thought the word was too good to leave in the fifteenth century so I have used it in a poem I wrote recently.

Could you pick out a favourite text?

One of my favourites has been the online Proceedings of the Old Bailey. I was asked to read the years from 1720 to 1750. They are full of intriguing, sometimes funny, often sad, stories of petty thievery, assault, highway robbery, counterfeiting, and murder. The sentence was usually transportation or an appointment with the ‘nooseman’ at Tyburn.

I found a host of compound nouns for objects not now in common use – breakfasting cloth, sugar hatchet, cipher buckle, turncock key, gauge iron, money shovel and tire strake. There were people such as a curd and whey woman, a looking-glass polisher and a thread throwster.

The new phrase ‘to plead one’s belly’, meaning ‘to ask for clemency on account of being pregnant’, occurred numerous times, in fact going back to 1676. I mentioned this to OED editor Claire Etty in a progress report and she cleverly remembered the phrase from Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. This set me thinking and I found advertisements for the novel appended to the Proceedings in 1722 and 1723. Defoe’s publisher was obviously familiar with them and maybe Defoe was wont to read them as a source of background knowledge.

Another enchanting curiosity was a new sense of the verb delude, meaning ‘to surreptitiously guide or redirect’. In 1721 a woman was being tried for stealing a gentleman’s watch. The transcript reads: ‘He clapt his Hand to his Fob to secure his Watch; but she deluded it into her Bosom, snatcht his Watch and ran away.’

It was also interesting to see the account of the trial, conviction, and death sentence of Jonathan Wild in May, 1725. What a rogue he was! A notorious thief-taker, he was responsible for the arrests of scores of villains until it was found that he was making money from fencing their stolen goods. Talk about a gamekeeper turned poacher. Henry Fielding’s novel is a somewhat romanticized account of his life.

And in the Proceedings for September 1750 I came across the trial of James Macleane, the ‘gentleman highwayman’, who, with his accomplice William Plunkett, carried out numerous robberies on the king’s highway. Macleane once robbed Horace Walpole and was known for his chivalrous behaviour to his victims. Ladies are said to have wept at his hanging. The movie Plunkett and Macleane, starring Robert Carlyle, is loosely based on their exploits. The things you find when you’re supposed to be working!

What is the most exciting aspect of your work?

Finding new words and antedatings. So far I have found 1,860 new words and 3,500 antedatings. There’s nothing like the thrill of finding a word that isn’t in the dictionary yet. It gives me a real buzz. I think it must be similar to the thrill that scientists feel when they discover a new species or a new sub-atomic particle.

How did we ever manage without words such as ‘decliff’ (to throw oneself off a cliff), ‘visager’ (one who puts a false aspect on things), ‘forflaid’ (thoroughly frightened), ‘confloption’ (upheaval, pandaemonium), ‘apophenia’ (seeing connections where there are none), ‘wastingstead’ (a devastated place), ‘ungifty’ (unproductive, not fruitful), ‘clumbungie’ (an ill-shaped, clumsy thing), and ‘hyperoxysophistical’ (over-specious maintenance of paradoxical opinions)? I am trying to work them into everyday conversation.

And I love finding antedatings. In The Crafte of Lymmyng, a collection of late medieval recipes for artists’ paints and stains, I found a reference to an overcloth (sense n. 3., a cloth placed on top of another cloth) that antedates the earliest of the OED’s quotations by 495 years!

Antedating pushes back the history of a word, just as an archaeologist might find evidence that Stonehenge was used for ritualistic ceremonies 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, or a palaeontologist might find a bone that shows that Homo sapiens emerged from Africa 5,000 years earlier than previously known. I suppose, in a way, lexicographers are linguistic archaeologists. We dig words out of the bedrock and bring them into the light.

Read the next post in the series with UK and Historical Programme reader Vivienne Painting.

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