How Germans have helped the OED
It is well known that the work that originally produced the Oxford English Dictionary was a great collective effort, drawing on contributions from people throughout the English-speaking world. It should also be no surprise that valuable contributions were also made by many scholars from outside that world. However, the specific debt which the Dictionary owes to German scholarship, and the many connections—past and present—between the ‘centre of operations’ in Oxford and various parts of Germany, deserve to be more widely appreciated.
Franz Passow and the Brothers Grimm
In fact it would be fair to say that the OED would never have happened at all if it hadn’t been for the Germans: specifically the Germans who, in the early nineteenth century, laid the foundations of historical lexicography. An important early pioneer was the classical scholar Franz Passow (1786–1833), who while working on a dictionary of Greek formulated what has come to be known as the ‘historical principle’ of lexicography: that a dictionary should record the ‘life history’ of each word, by means of quotations showing when each word and meaning was first used. The influence of Passow’s ideas was explicitly acknowledged by Herbert Coleridge, the first Editor of what was then called the New English Dictionary. Moreover, the great historical dictionary of the German language on which Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm embarked in the 1830s served as a model and inspiration—and a challenge—to those who, in the 1850s, resolved to do something comparable for English.
The Philological Society
When the new project was launched by the Philological Society of London, there were various Germans among the Society’s active membership, including several who took a particular interest in the Dictionary, notably the distinguished orientalist Theodor Goldstücker, who although born and educated in Germany was now teaching Sanskrit at University College London, and who acted in an advisory capacity on etymological and other matters for some years. In fact there were many German scholars living and working in Britain at this time, and others also made contributions to the Dictionary, including the linguist Carl Lottner, who in the 1860s was commissioned to prepare extensive etymological materials.
Over the next decade or so, however, the project stagnated, despite the best efforts of various figures—including Frederick Furnivall, who took charge after the early death of Coleridge—and it was only in the later 1870s that it was galvanized into renewed activity, leading to the signing of agreements with Oxford University Press and a new Editor, James Murray, in 1879. Once again German scholars played an important part from the start. This is hardly surprising, as the historical study of English was continuing to flourish in Germany: the oldest academic journal devoted to English language and literature, Anglia, had just been founded at Leipzig, and important scholarly editions of early English texts were being produced by German scholars. Murray himself was already a regular correspondent of one of the most distinguished of these editors, Julius Zupitza of Berlin—whose important edition of Beowulf would appear in 1882—and was soon corresponding with many more. These notably included Eduard Sievers of Tübingen, whose advice on the etymologies of words of Germanic origin was acknowledged in many of the prefaces to individual fascicles of the Dictionary, alongside others such as Friedrich Kluge, Lorenz Morsbach, and Arnold Schröer. The last of these, in his turn, dedicated his own German-English dictionary to Murray and Furnivall, ‘the great originators and promoters of modern English dictionary-work’.
An international community
Indeed Murray clearly saw himself as part of an international community of researchers, among whom—at least as far as the academic study of English was concerned—Germans figured prominently. He was particularly appreciative of the contribution they could make to the etymologies in the OED: so much so that in 1897, when he was exploring ways in which the compilation of the Dictionary might be speeded up, he proposed engaging ‘a German scholar’ to prepare preliminary drafts of the etymologies of Dictionary entries. This idea was never taken up, but help and advice continued to flow into Oxford from Germany. This flow was brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of the First World War: in 1915, as the finishing touches were being put to the latest Dictionary fascicle (for words from Trink to Turn-down), Murray lamented that the work had been made more difficult by having to be done ‘without any atom of help from Germany’.
In addition to providing etymological advice, Germans could contribute to the Dictionary in other ways. Like everyone else throughout the world, they could contribute quotations, and some certainly did: at least one German—a political exile, and later close associate of Bismarck, named Lothar Bucher—was already doing so under Herbert Coleridge’s editorship, and more Germans, and Austrians, volunteered as readers after James Murray took over. In fact the most prolific of all the non-native speakers of English who supplied quotations to the first edition of the Dictionary was an Austrian philologist named Hartwig Richard Helwich. In the early years of Murray’s editorship, Helwich sent in tens of thousands of quotations taken mainly from various important Middle English texts, including the long poem Cursor Mundi, the most frequently cited work in the Dictionary apart from the Bible.
German staff on the OED
Such ‘contributions from afar’ might be expected, given the international nature of the enterprise. Perhaps more surprising is the number of Germans, or people of German extraction, who have worked directly on the text of the Dictionary itself, as members of the editorial staff. The third person to join James Murray in the Scriptorium, Alfred Erlebach, was such a man: although a native of Wiltshire, he was of German descent. His grandfather Adolphus Erlebach (1781–1864) was born in Kirn, a village near Bingen on the Rhine, and came to England with his uncle in 1801, apparently to avoid conscription into the Napoleonic army. Alfred had been a teaching colleague of Murray’s at Mill Hill School (where the schoolboys knew him as ‘Corky’ or ‘Plonk’ on account of his wooden leg); Murray recruited him to the Dictionary staff in 1882, and although he resigned from his full-time post shortly after Murray moved to Oxford in 1885, he remained deeply interested in the Dictionary until his death in 1899, regularly reading and correcting proofs, and sometimes even returning to the Scriptorium to deputize for Murray when he took his summer holiday.
The man who became his effective successor in the Scriptorium—he joined Murray’s staff only a few months before Erlebach’s departure in 1885—also had German roots: in the case of Charles Balk they were rather nearer the surface, as his father, Gottfried Wilhelm Balk, a native of Hamburg, had only moved to Ipswich in the 1850s. He stayed at Murray’s side for nearly forty years, becoming his ‘most trusty’ assistant—although in later life he seems to have found his work less than enthralling, as he was described by a contemporary as invariably managing to fall asleep at his desk upon returning from his lunch break. In 1912–13 Murray also briefly took on one other German, a former museum curator named Eduard Brenner (who had already established his philological credentials with an edition of an important Old English text). Brenner left in 1913, and is in fact one of the two OED assistants known to have died on active service in the First World War: he fell fighting on the Eastern Front in 1915.
Of course the majority of those working alongside the Dictionary’s Editors were British, but some of them made German connections of their own. Alfred Gough, who worked for Murray a few years before Eduard Brenner, had spent some years working in Germany before he was taken on: he had been a Lektor in English at the University of Kiel, and at the time that Murray appointed him was working as a tutor to Prince Waldemar of Prussia. And then there was the splendidly named Hereward Thimbleby Price, who began work for Murray in 1896 when he was still a schoolboy. He went on combine his lexicography with study at Oxford University; he left the Dictionary in 1904, shortly after graduating, and emigrated to Germany to pursue his studies. He obtained a position at Bonn University, married a German wife, and became a German citizen—just in time to be conscripted into the German army in the First World War. This was only the beginning of a remarkable series of adventures: he was sent to the Eastern Front, captured by the Russians, and imprisoned in Siberia, but escaped overland to China. He seems to have held out hopes of returning to work on the OED after the war; but the assessment of Henry Bradley, now the Dictionary’s senior Editor, was that circumstances had now changed, and that ‘among the staff there will be no friendly feeling towards an Englishman who has denaturalized himself and married a German’. In fact he returned to Germany—where he compiled a two-volume dictionary of his own—and subsequently emigrated again to pursue a distinguished lexicographical career in America.
The involvement of Germans with the compilation of the OED did not end with the completion of the first edition of the Dictionary, by any means. Indeed it continues down to the present day: there are three German nationals currently working on the staff of the OED. All are members of the etymological staff, which perhaps reflects the strong academic training in Germanic languages (including Old English) available in German universities. The first to arrive joined the Dictionary in 2001; they certainly now form an important and much-valued part of our etymological team. They are the latest representatives of the long tradition of Anglo-German collaboration in the study of the English language, of which Franz Passow and the brothers Grimm would surely be proud. Long may it continue!