AGM & The President’s Lecture: Standards, norms and prescriptivism

The Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society was held on 17 June at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Having completed a four-year term of office, Prof. Wendy Ayres-Bennett stood down as President of the Society; she is succeeded by Prof. Aditi Lahiri FBA.

The following Members of Council have served their term on council or wished to retire early, and did not stand for re-election: Prof. Ruth Kempson FBA (KCL); Prof. Aditi Lahiri FBA (Oxford); Dr John Penney (Oxford); Dr George Walkden (Manchester).

In their place, the following new Ordinary Members of Council have been elected: Prof. Eleanor Dickey (Reading); Dr Mary MacRobert (Oxford); Prof. Maj-Britt Mosegaard-Hansen (Manchester); Dr David Willis (Cambridge).

The 9th RH Robins Prize was awarded to Jade Jørgen Sandstedt (Edinburgh) for a paper entitled ‘Transparency and blocking in Old Norwegian height harmony’, which will be published in TPS.

The outgoing President delivered her President’s Lecture on ‘Standards, norms and prescriptivism’, an audio recording and screencast of which can be found below and on the Society’s YouTube channel.

‘The Word Detective’ serialised on BBC Radio 4

by John Simpson (Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, 1993–2017)

John Simpson
(© Bloomington Photography)

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.

Picture2I 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.

The Word Detective will be broadcast at 7.45 p.m. this Monday to Friday (13–17 March), on BBC Radio 4. See if I achieved it!



John Simpson’s ‘The Word Detective’ is published by Little Brown in the UK, and Basic Books in the USA.

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

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.

James Murray in the Scriptorium

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).