Women of Words: a journey through the archives of the OED

Women of Words: a journey through the archives of the OED

The OED often appears in popular culture and in the media – its ambition, span, and attention to detail has captured many imaginations over the last 150 years. The latest in this long line is a new book, The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, which offers an alternative history of the OED, imagining the adventure of a young girl, Esme, who begins to capture the words relating to women’s experience for her own lexicographical project.

Digging into the OED archives at Oxford University Press, Pip began to piece together the real-life roles of men and women in the history of the dictionary often reflective of the disparities in Victorian and early 20th century society: women in minor roles, their contributions undervalued, the over-riding perspective an essentially masculine one. From there, a story was born and here, in an exclusive extra, Pip imagines the scene as the first edition of the OED is published and what it might have meant to the women that worked on it.

On 6 June 1928, one hundred and fifty men gathered in London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall to celebrate the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The guests were men who had served the Dictionary for decades or months or not at all. They ate Saumon bouilli with sauce Hollandaise, and they drank 1907 Chateau Margaux.

Among the guests was Prof JR Tolkien. He had not yet written The Hobbit, but after serving in WWI he spent a couple of years in the Scriptorium defining words beginning with Wa. We can thank him for waggle and walrus and warlock. I’d like to think he was also consulted on wizard, but there is no evidence of this.

Gentlemen representing The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Manchester Guardian were also invited. As were scholars, editors, clerks, men of the cloth, knights of the realm and a humble school headmaster.  They poured into the Hall and found their places at three long tables arranged in front of another, higher, table. These were the lesser men, though some wore robes and most were in tuxedos. A bell rang and they turned to see the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, being chaperoned by the Prime Warden, Sir William Pope, to the high table. Other honoured guests followed, and champagne glasses were filled with a 1917 Pommery & Greno

I know what they ate because I’ve seen the menu. I know who was there because I have a copy of the seating plan. I’ve read the Prime Minister’s speech and seen countless newspaper articles about the occasion. I’ve seen the slips that contain all the words in that celebrated Dictionary and many that were left out. I’ve held letters written by Sir James Murray, by his wife Ada and his daughters Elsie and Rosfrith. I’ve seen proof pages with comments and queries from Edith Thompson. I’ve seen a ledger with the wages of the Scriptorium staff – highest to lowest, the women at the bottom.

These are the artefacts that furnish history. They are also the artefacts that furnish fiction, and they have furnished The Dictionary of Lost Words with details that allow the fiction to ring true. These artefacts are held in simple cardboard boxes and stored on ordinary metal shelves in the archives of Oxford University Press. They tell a story, but not the whole.

There were three people who did not have a seat at any of the tables during that celebration in 1928, but history records their presence in the balcony that overlooks the Hall.

To make sense of why these three were missing from the guest list, and how it might have felt to watch the celebration unfold, I have sat with those archive boxes and spoken to the people who tend them. I have searched the proofs of the Dictionary for what was valued and what was not. I have asked the lexicographers of today to introduce me to the lexicographers of yesterday. My journey through the archives has allowed me to imagine myself into a time and place that no longer exists.

So here I am, on the balcony looking down.

It is a concession to the rules of Goldsmiths’ Hall that I am here at all, so I should be grateful. I look to my right, and there are the three: Edith Thompson, Eleanor Bradley and Rosfrith Murray. These women have been working on the OED for decades. Few men in the Hall below can claim longer service. Rosfrith is the daughter of Sir James Murray, the first and most celebrated editor. She has been employed to serve the Dictionary since she was 17. I follow her gaze to the high table where her brothers, Oswyn and Harold, sit opposite the Prime Minister. As children, they all helped sort slips containing quotations, but it is Rosfrith who chose to dedicate her life to the project, not her brothers. I look to Eleanor, her wire-framed spectacles make her look more serious than she is. Eleanor is the daughter of Henry Bradley, the Dictionary’s second editor. She has been collating and defining words longer than Rosfrith. And then there’s Edith, my favourite. She is an old woman now and I imagine she is reflecting on the first words she contributed to the Dictionary. Her name can be found among the acknowledgements of volumes from A to Z.

The soup course is served – tortue claire. Perhaps the Prime Minister has a distaste for turtle. He chooses now to make a toast to the editors and staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. He taps his silver dessert spoon on an empty crystal glass. The chime rings loud and clear. The Hall falls silent.

‘Perhaps before I begin I may make a confession about the Dictionary. I have not read it. But if ever a work was destined for eternity, that is it.’

Mr Baldwin speaks for some time. My companions and I lean on the banister of the little balcony, straining to hear. The movement is a relief; the seats are hard and the space cramped.

‘The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest enterprise of its kind in history, and I ask you therefore to drink to the health of its editors and staff.’

The Prime Minister raises his glass and every man in the Hall does the same. It is a symphony of crystal and there is a jubilant congratulating hum directed towards those who are known to have spent their time defining the words. There are 150 men in that hall and not one looks to the balcony.

I turn to the women. Do they feel this snub as I do? I mime the raising of a glass. They are surprised to see me, but happy to play along. We come together in a silent celebration of the contributions they have made to this great enterprise.

I wish I could tell them that the Prime Minister was right, that the Dictionary was destined for eternity. And I wish I could tell them, that nearly a century later, the women who continue their work have been given a place at the table.

In the years that followed the conclusion of the first edition of the OED, the position of women in society has changed. Equal pay for equal work. Female editors. Female Prime Ministers. And the OED has sought to reflect that. Definitions and examples have been updated. New words have been added. Stereotypes and generalizations have been questioned, challenged, and corrected.

The dictionary is, and always will be, a living document, reflecting the way in which language is used and the biases that exist around us but, if Esme were to see us now, perhaps she would have fewer words to capture for her own dictionary.

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