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Henry Bradley: ‘sméaþoncol mon’

Henry Bradley

In the second instalment of an ongoing series on some of the Oxford English Dictionary’s editors, following on from an article about James Murray, Peter Gilliver looks at the life, work, and legacy of Henry Bradley.

An obituary is often the place where people first really find out about a person. In the case of Henry Bradley, the Oxford English Dictionary’s second editor, there are many worse places to start than the obituary written in 1923 by his former assistant J. R. R. Tolkien, who famously said of the short time he spent under Bradley’s tutelage that he ‘learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of [his] life’. Given Tolkien’s interests and aptitudes, it’s hardly surprising that his tribute is so reminiscent of Old English funerary panegyric; he even concludes with 13 lines of alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse, praising Bradley as úþwita (distinguished scholar), hár ond hygegléaw (experienced and sagacious), and sméaþoncol mon (acute thinker). But the sense of loss, and the warm affection in which Bradley was held, also come through strongly:

‘As permanent a feature of Oxford as its works of stone he came to seem, as grey and venerable yet as strong to last as the walls of a college, as learned as its library; and now to some Oxford seems as strangely altered as if one of its chief monuments had been lifted away at night by inexorable hands leaving an emptiness and an unreplenishable blank.’

There is also a vivid evocation of the lexicographer at work in the Dictionary Room—‘that great dusty workshop, that brownest of brown studies’—in Oxford’s Old Ashmolean Building (now the Museum of the History of Science); Tolkien recalls him ‘momentarily held in thought, with eyes looking into the grey shadows of the roof, pen poised in the air to descend at last and fix a sentence or a paragraph complete and rounded, without blot or erasure, on the paper before him.’

Northern talent

In fact there was a lot more to Henry Bradley than an ability to write faultless definitions for the OED (which is not to underplay that impressive accomplishment). In the pre-OED part of his story we can see some similarities with his more famous predecessor James Murray. Like Murray, he was a northerner, although an Englishman rather than a Scot (he was born in Manchester, in 1845, and grew up in Derbyshire); like Murray, he was self-taught, having shown an extraordinary flair for language and languages at a very early age. The first sign of this appeared the first time he went to church, at the age of three, when he insisted on holding his hymn-book upside-down, whereupon it was realized that he had taught himself to read by looking at the family Bible open upon his father’s knees. Like Murray, he never went to university; and, like Murray, he spent some time teaching—but his main occupation, until his late thirties, was the unpromising one of corresponding clerk for a Sheffield cutlery firm. But he continued to study languages in his spare time, and already by the early 1870s was contributing articles about place names to the Sheffield newspapers. By 1884, when he moved to London—partly for economic reasons and partly on account of his wife’s health—he had already begun to write for several of the more intellectual London magazines, including the Academy.

Starting work on the Dictionary

And it was for the Academy that he was asked to write a review of the newly-published first fascicle of the New English Dictionary. This review, written while he was still moving into his first London home, was to transform his life. It demonstrated an impressive command of languages, a real sensitivity to linguistic minutiae, and great precision and clarity: all the things, in short, that make a good lexicographer. And when it reached the eyes of James Murray—who, it’s fair to say, was not a man easily impressed—he immediately began to wonder how the Dictionary might make use of Bradley’s talents, and was soon corresponding with him on etymological matters. In 1886 he was formally engaged to work on the project, and in 1887 Oxford University Press, concerned at the Dictionary’s slow rate of progress under its single editor, appointed him as a second editor working on separate portions of the alphabet, initially under Murray’s direct supervision, but eventually entirely independently. Inevitably, the ever-sensitive Murray viewed Bradley’s appointment as an implied criticism of his own work, and the fact that their working relationship was a good one more or less from the start says much for the diplomacy and easy-going nature, as well as the abilities, of the younger man.

A significant workload

Initially Bradley continued to live and work in London, and a workroom was found for him in the British Museum. He also continued to do a remarkable amount of other literary work, producing a successful popular book about the Goths and a revision of a substantial dictionary of Middle English, not to mention numerous articles for various journals and for the Dictionary of National Biography (including, fittingly, the lives of the lexicographers Joseph Bosworth, Henry Cockeram, and Randle Cotgrave). Indeed, he sometimes took on more work than was good for him: in 1892 the strain of completing his Middle English Dictionary—which regularly occupied him until 3 a.m.—led to his having to take several months off with nervous exhaustion. In fact he continued to display an impressive capacity for hard work, though his constitution was less robust than James Murray’s, and his work was periodically interrupted by other bouts of ill health.

Eventually, in 1896, Bradley and his family moved to Oxford, the better to concentrate on his lexicography. Initially he lived and worked on the premises of Oxford University Press itself, but in 1901 he moved to the Old Ashmolean, where he worked alongside the Dictionary’s third Editor, William Craigie (and later the fourth, Charles Onions), and their assistants, among whom was his daughter Eleanor. Bradley was ultimately responsible for nearly a third of the first edition of the OED, including the letters E, F, G, L, M, and parts of S and W.

He somehow continued to find time to produce other books and articles, including The Making of English (1904), which was for many years one of the most popular accounts of the history of the language. He had always taken a particular interest in the study of place names, and wrote some important articles on the subject. He also, perhaps more than any of his fellow Editors, took a real pleasure in the aesthetics of language, and specifically in poetry; he became a close friend of the poet (and eventual Poet Laureate) Robert Bridges, with whom he played a leading part in the foundation of the Society for Pure English in 1913. On the other hand, his insensitivity to music was such that he claimed only to be able to recognize one piece of music, namely the national anthem, and that only because people stood up when it was played.

Murray’s successor

After the death of James Murray in 1915 Bradley became the Dictionary’s chief Editor; and a few years later it was as a member of his staff that the young J. R. R. Tolkien, returning to Oxford after his time in the trenches, spent those two evidently memorable years. It was around this time that Tolkien began to write extensively about his world of Middle-earth, and it is tempting to imagine the aspiring poet discussing some of his early efforts with his mentor in the Dictionary Room.

In January 1923, in an interview published in the British newspaper The Observer, Bradley looked forward to the completion of the Dictionary, which he thought would take ‘at least two years yet’. This was to prove distinctly optimistic—the first edition was only completed in 1928—and, sadly, Bradley did not live to see it; in fact he died in May 1923, only two days after suffering a serious stroke. He was unquestionably a key figure in the creation of the first edition of the OED. An unassuming, even a shy man, he may have been quite happy to stand in the shadow of James Murray; but he deserves to be brought back into the limelight.