Women and the Oxford English Dictionary
On International Women’s Day, we shine the spotlight on 10 women without whom the OED would not be what it is today. Some are famous, some less so, but all made a vital and important contribution.
1. Charlotte Yonge (1823–1901)
Novelist, perhaps best known today for The Heir of Redclyffe (1853). She also wrote an important book on the history of Christian names, and founded the magazine The Monthly Packet (and edited it for many years). She was involved with the Dictionary almost from its inception, and was one of the first volunteer ‘sub-editors’, preparing draft entries in the letter N in the 1860s. (She is also currently one of the ten most frequently quoted female authors in the OED, with nearly 300 quotations from her novel Cameos alone.)
2. and 3. Miss Scott and Miss Skipper
Two ‘young women of fair education’ from the village of Mill Hill, where James Murray was living when he first took on the editorship of the Dictionary; he took them on in 1879 to help with the enormous task of sorting the millions of quotation slips that had been collected. They worked at it for three years, and Ellen Skipper carried on for another three years after Miss Scott left.
4. Edith Thompson (1848–1929)
Historian and prolific author (though often writing under pseudonyms). Her History of England, a school textbook, went through many editions. She began to contribute quotations to the Dictionary in 1880; together with her sister Elizabeth (who was also an author), they contributed 15,000 quotations during the next eight years, and continued for the rest of their lives. Edith also became one of the much-valued group of people who read (and supplied detailed comments on) the proofs of the Dictionary, and acted as an expert consultant on various historical terms.
5. Jennett Humphreys (1829–1917)
Children’s author; her collection of nursery rhymes, Laugh and Learn, continued to be reprinted after her death. She began to write to James Murray at much the same time as Edith Thompson, and soon became a regular correspondent. She, too, was a voluminous contributor of quotations—credited with nearly 20,000 by 1888—and for a while was the second most prolific contributor of all.
6. Hilda Murray (1875–1951)
Eldest daughter of James Murray. Like all of Murray’s eleven children, Hilda Murray helped out with the Dictionary from her earliest years; initially this involved sorting the quotation slips into alphabetical order, but later Hilda also researched the etymologies of many words for her father, and carried out statistical work for the Dictionary. After graduating from Oxford University in modern languages in 1896, she went on to become a successful academic, eventually becoming vice-mistress of Girton College in Cambridge.
7. Mary Dormer Harris (1867–1936)
Although she worked on the Dictionary only briefly, as a member of James Murray’s staff in 1895, Mary Dormer Harris has the distinction of being the first woman to do so apart from Murray’s wife and daughters. She came to the Dictionary after studying English at Oxford, and went on to become a distinguished local historian, specializing in the history of Coventry and Warwickshire in general.
8. Ethelwyn Rebecca Steane (1873/4–1941)
Daughter of an Oxford wine merchant. Ethelwyn Steane was taken on as an assistant by William Craigie, the OED’s third editor, in 1901, and remained on the staff for the next thirty years. She also found love through the Dictionary: another assistant, Lawrence Powell, who was taken on at the same time as Ethelwyn, became her husband in 1909. (A copy of the still-incomplete Dictionary was presented to them by Oxford University Press on the occasion of their marriage.)
9. Jessie Senior (later Coulson) (1903–87)
Jessie Senior was taken on as an assistant in 1928, to work on the compilation of the first Supplement to the OED. By the time the Supplement appeared in 1933, she had married the chemist E. A. Coulson; she had also begun what was to be a successful career as a lexicographer in her own right. After the death of the original compiler of the Little Oxford Dictionary, George Ostler, she saw it through the press; she went on to work on many other Oxford dictionaries, including editions of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, and the Pocket Oxford Russian Dictionary.
10. Marghanita Laski (1915–88)
Writer, critic, and broadcaster. A prominent figure in ‘literary London’ for several decades, she somehow managed to combine her literary and broadcasting work with a passionate enthusiasm for the OED, and in particular for contributing quotations to the revised Supplement to the Dictionary being edited by Robert Burchfield. Over the last three decades of her life she contributed something like a quarter of a million quotations, taken from her voluminous and wide-ranging reading, which included enormous quantities of crime fiction but also books on gardening and embroidery and even mail-order catalogues. Like Edith Thompson, she also read proofs of many dictionary entries.
And this is to say nothing of the dozens of women engaged in revising and updating the OED today.