by John Simpson (Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, 1993–2017)
A generation ago, my colleagues and I at the OED were starting to become increasingly aware that the dictionary was in danger of drifting away from its audience. Or, to put it more accurately, the dictionary was standing still while its audience moved into the twentieth and then the twenty-first centuries.
Historical lexicography is demanding. There are few short cuts; standards are exacting. The editors of the First Edition of the OED had laboured for many years to capture the history of our language, and its format reflected nineteenth-century expectations about how knowledge should be presented. Nowadays the level of scholarship at the OED is the same – it has to be. But a wider audience expects to be able to access and understand the dictionary in radically new ways. One of the challenges of the last few decades has been how to present the content of the OED to a new readership in the digital age.
I wrote The Word Detective to give readers an informal, behind-the-scenes look at the OED and the extraordinary things it has set out to achieve over the last forty years. In addition, I wanted to convey to readers the excitement of researching and defining the language – because that’s what we all felt as editors.
I have recently been informed that my application for UK citizenship has been successful, so I shall have the opportunity to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. This leads to the discovery that when new citizens of the UK swear allegiance to the Queen, they are invited to shake the hand of her Lord Lieutenant for their county – unless that official is otherwise engaged, in which case they shake the hand of the interestingly-named Deputy Lieutenant. One could in theory call this person a lieutenant lieutenant, or a deputy deputy, but since the sixteenth century the title has in fact been Deputy Lieutenant. The Deputy Lieutenant is, apparently, not to be confused with the Vice Lord Lieutenant, though I cannot quite work out whether the Vice-Lieutenant mentioned in the OED is another term for the Deputy Lieutenant or for the Vice Lord Lieutenant.
Similarly, a university may have Pro Vice Chancellors, who may also be called Deputy Vice Chancellors, and some universities even have Deputy Pro Vice Chancellors, but there never seems to be a Vice Vice Chancellor. The Pro-Vicar is an official in the Catholic church, but the Vice Vicar is, as far as I know, unattested.
A few counterexamples can be found: the term Vice Viceroy is attested, though it is rare compared to the Deputy Viceroy (an official in, for example, the early government of Brazil). Some departments of the US government apparently contain a Deputy deputy secretary, a Deputy associate deputy secretary, a Principal deputy deputy assistant secretary, and/or a Deputy deputy assistant secretary. But despite this testimony to extreme bureaucracy, the basic linguistic principle seems to be that the ‘vice’ terms do not double up in a single title: a term already contained in the original title is not normally added to it again.
Explanations for the distinctions between these different terms abound, and no doubt these explanations work for particular titles. Certainly there is a real difference between a university’s Vice-Chancellor, who actually runs the institution, and a Pro-Chancellor who stands in for the Chancellor on ceremonial occasions. And if the Pro-Chancellor were to have a deputy, it would not be unreasonable to call him or her a Vice Pro-Chancellor and distinguish that official firmly from a Pro Vice Chancellor. But on a larger level the construction of such titles cannot be determined primarily by distinctions of meaning, since if it were, we would more often see the same term used twice in a row.
In Latin, as far as I can ascertain, the question does not arise. Despite the impressive nature of the imperial bureaucracy, there do not seem to be titles containing more than one iteration of the idea ‘acting for’. The proconsul is readily to be found, but he is joined neither by the official acting pro proconsule nor the one in vicem proconsularis. So why does English act as it does? Is the difference primarily linguistic or cultural? What do other languages do? This is a type of question to which Philological Society members are uniquely qualified to contribute, so I look forward with interest to their contributions!
Trade Pidgins in China: Historical and Grammatical Relationships
by Michelle Li
Sino-western contacts began in the 16th century when Europeans started open trade with China. Two trade pidgins, Macau Pidgin Portuguese (MPP) and Chinese Pidgin English (CPE), arose during the Canton trade period. This paper examines the historical and grammatical relationships of these two pidgins by drawing data from 19th century phrasebooks. This study argues for a close connection between MPP and CPE with reference to three grammatical features which go beyond shared vocabulary: locative copulas, form of personal pronouns, and prepositional complementisers. While these grammatical properties find little resemblance in the recognised source languages for CPE, parallel uses are attested in MPP, which therefore appears to provide the model for these properties in CPE.
by Peter Gilliver (Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary)
The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and indeed its fortunes for much of the period when its first edition was compiled, were so closely bound up with the Philological Society that it is hardly surprising that it was long known in some quarters as ‘the Society’s Dictionary’. Accordingly, the Society’s members may be interested to know something about the new history of the project which has just been published by Oxford University Press.
It has been many years in the making. In the late 1990s, about a decade after I took up a position as a member of the Dictionary’s current editorial staff, I began to contemplate the idea of compiling a new history of it. Many will be familiar with some of the other histories of the OED that were already available at that time, or have appeared since: Caught in the Web of Words for example, Elisabeth Murray’s magisterial biography of her grandfather James Murray (which inevitably only manages to tell his story by also telling the story of the work with which his prodigious energies and intellect were taken up for over half his life), or Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything. However, I thought that my own knowledge of the Dictionary, gained through years of constant engagement with its text as a practising lexicographer, might qualify me to take a fresh look at the subject. Moreover, I had already begun to explore the Dictionary’s archives, having become interested in the lexicographical work done by J. R. R. Tolkien as one of my predecessors on the staff (and given a conference paper on the subject in 1992), and I could see that there was a great deal more to be discovered.
I decided that there might be advantages in combining the task of researching and writing the history of the OED with my ‘day job’ as one of the team of lexicographers engaged in preparing the Dictionary’s third edition. Working on the two tasks concurrently has indeed been beneficial to both—the cross-fertilization between ‘doing lexicography’and writing the history of one of its greatest projects has taken place in both directions—but it has also had the disadvantage that it took me fourteen years to complete the book.
It gives me great pleasure to take this opportunity to acknowledge, as I already have done in the preface to the book, the generosity of the Council of the Philological Society in allowing me to consult the Society’s records; many of these records are currently deposited in the archives of Oxford University Press, making it easy to consult them at the same time as the OED‘s own enormous archive. In particular, the minute books for the Society’s meetings—both ordinary meetings, and meetings of the Council—from the earliest years of work on the Dictionary have greatly enriched the story, with fascinating detail about such matters as the protracted behind-the-scenes manoeuvring with key figures in the Society that preceded the eventual signing of contracts with OUP in 1879, and the thorough briefings about the project’s progress during the ensuing decades, which Society members received (usually directly from one or other of the Dictionary’s Editors) at regular ‘Dictionary Evenings’—privileged information, which the Society was often the first to hear, and which in some cases never got written down anywhere else.
The history of the OED has an intrinsic interest to anyone interested in linguistic scholarship, the history of English, and British cultural history more generally; I hope that the Society’s close association with the Dictionary will give further interest to my book for Society members. They certainly have good reason to be proud of the part played by the Society, and by many of its individual members, in the inception and compilation of the Dictionary, arguably one of the greatest philological projects ever undertaken.
‘The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary’ is published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 9780199283620).