Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

Clearly in Jonson’s Grammar we are looking at a museum piece. The parts of speech that are named at all are named in a Latinate manner. All rounds him the language was showing its unstable hooks and claws. The dramatist in Jonson realized this and his plays show the English language at its abundant best. As a playwright he was a lord of the language but as a grammarian just an obsequious footman.

Unlocking… is, at times, appealingly quaint: he refers to “keyboarding microcomputers” on a few occasions, and describes Partridge’s Usage and Abusage as a “shoulder-beating book of great severity”, a phrase that puzzled me until the collective Twitter-brain suggested it was a reference to corporal punishment.

Speaking of which, Burchfield says of the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English that by popularising solecism-hunting on a national scale, the book “placed the nation in a schoolroom”. He lists some of the book’s proposed titles before The King’s English (from an unknown party) won out:

The New Solecist for literary tiros
The New Solecist: for sixth form boys & journalists.
The (or the Clarendon Press) Book of Solecisms for journalists, novelists, & schoolboys
Bad and Good English: Chapters on Common Faults in Composition
Solecism & Journalism
Solecisms & minor literary faults
Solecisms and literary blemishes
The Unmaking of English
The English of the times

One of the most intensely interesting chapters examines the treatment of controversial vocabulary in the OED – not just taboo words and racial terms but all sorts of word groups on the fringes of lexicographic coverage: trademarks, proper names, obvious combinations (elf-castle, elf-dance), malapropisms, nonsense and invented words (“a large and important class”), erroneous/confused uses (tarantula for tarantella), rare words (their rareness meticulously classified; I was particularly struck by imberb “beardless”), obscure counting words like yan, tan, tethera, methera, pip, and miscellaneous wordplay:

James Joyce crops up several times. Discussing new words and usages of the 1920s, Burchfield refers to the use of It to mean both sex appeal and sex itself – the latter usage part of the “secret language of the Victorian period” but pushed into wider circulation by Ulysses.

He mentions a retired schoolteacher from Kent tasked with reading all of Joyce’s works – except Finnegans Wake – and making note of those words and senses not already in the OED. Jonathon Green tells me he had someone do likewise for one of slang dictionaries, scouring Joyce’s work for novelty – again, except for Finnegans Wake.

Editing the new Supplement was a daunting task. On his first day, Burchfield:

started by reading that day’s issue of The Times and working systematically through it, from the advertisements to the weather forecast, and everything in between, copying out examples of words and meanings found there that were not dealt with in the OED. The results were a revelation.

One of the last things he did in relation to the Supplement, soon after publication of its final volume, was to write to Anthony Burgess – who “of all the reviewers of all the volumes . . . seemed to me to come nearest to understanding the problems that I had overcome”. Burchfield told him:

You have a perfect awareness of the never-ending raggedness, stretching away into the darkness, of our language at the perimeter of what we can manage to put in our largest dictionaries.

Robert Burchfield, OED editor and lexicographer

Robert Burchfield (photo from OED.com)

This description recalls James Murray’s earlier characterisation of English as having “no discernible circumference” but a nucleus that “shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness”.

We learn that C. T. Onions, whom Burchfield called “the greatest English etymologist of the twentieth century”, was baffled by beatnik, asking Burchfield several times “Where can it possibly have come from?” (We now believe it derives from beat (the generation, or social style) + Yiddish or Russian –nik; Sputnik inspired several such suffixations.

Burchfield’s work on so many varieties of English from its earliest incarnations to its modern innovations gave him a keen awareness of the language’s volatility and its strength, the two no doubt related. He described the brittleness at the boundaries of the language and also in its central systems. But he knew this did not imply fragility:

Prolonged study of the English language leaves me with a conviction that nearly all the linguistic tendencies of the present day have been displayed in earlier centuries, and it is self-evident that the language has not bled to death through change. Vulgarity finds its antidote; old crudities become softened with time. Distinctions, both those that are useful and those that are burdensome, flourish and die, reflourish and die again.

Edit: John E. McIntyre at You Don’t Say suggests posting those lines above your desk “as a corrective to the ill-informed crotchets” of linguistic doom-mongers.

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5 Responses to Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

  1. […] at Sentence First Stan Carey looks at some short works by Robert Burchfield the philologist/lexicographer who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary and produced an updated […]

  2. Gill says:

    You refer to Burchfield’s mention of ‘it’ to mean both sex appeal and sex. I didn’t know that Joyce popularised this, but it is no longer in common usage. So I feel obscurely embarrassed that ‘it’ is still used by the compilers of cryptic crosswords to mean sex appeal specifically. As a cryptic crossword lover, I’ve occasionally tried to introduce other people to their joys and eccentricities, including their standard codes, and this one always seems ridiculously outmoded!

  3. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I’m startled to see that anyone was ever baffled by “beatnik.” In context it always seemed so obvious. (Context meaning San Francisco Bay Area 1950s-60s childhood) Weren’t people in the UK talking about “the beat” too?

  4. Stan says:

    Gill: This is news to me. My father and brother love cryptic crosswords, but I’m just an occasional dabbler. So a lot of their codes are unknown to me, including anachronistic “it” – until today!

    Lucy: That surprised me too – and the bafflement was not just anyone’s, but a leading etymologist’s. 20/20 hindsight applies here of course, but it still seems strange. Maybe he simply never got around to investigating it.

  5. […] English, echoing Mitford, says the use of sic “may be defensive, but its overuse is offensive”. Robert Burchfield in his revision of Fowler says it provides “reviewers and controversialists” with “a neat and […]

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