A man with plans: William Craigie
The 13th of August 2017 marks 150 years since the birth of William Craigie, the third editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
By the time William Alexander Craigie first came to be mentioned as a possible third editor of the OED, in the summer of 1897, he had already done several things that neither of his predecessors had done. Whereas neither James Murray nor Henry Bradley had been to university, Craigie had degrees from two: one in classics and philosophy from St Andrews and another in literae humaniores from Oxford. At St Andrews he had also begun to study Danish and Icelandic; he pursued his interest in Scandinavian languages at Oxford, again in his spare time, and managed to squeeze in some Celtic studies as well. An extended trip to Copenhagen followed, and he was soon publishing articles on the language and culture of Scandinavia, as well as of his native Scotland, while also serving as an assistant to the professor of Latin at St Andrews: all pretty impressive for the son of a jobbing gardener from Dundee.
The invitation to consider taking up a position on the OED, with a view to ultimately becoming the Dictionary’s third editor, seems to have come as something of a surprise to Craigie, but his response was enthusiastic: he even postponed his honeymoon—he had got married on 28 June—in order to take up the offer. However, things nearly got off to a very bad start indeed, thanks to the fact that the offer had been made (by a senior Oxford academic involved in the running of OUP) without consulting or even informing James Murray. The notoriously touchy chief editor was, predictably, furious. He was well aware of the Press’s desire to increase the Dictionary’s rate of production by appointing another editor—the appointment of Bradley a decade earlier had not accelerated matters as much as had been hoped—but he might reasonably have expected to be involved in any decision about possible candidates. The fact that Craigie had no lexicographical experience can hardly have helped. Fortunately, Murray was persuaded not to carry out his threat to resign, and Craigie joined the lexicographers in Oxford, and in 1901—after periods of apprenticeship with both Murray and Bradley—he took up a position as independent editor. He went on to serve as one of the Dictionary’s editors for the next quarter-century or so. Unlike Murray and Bradley, however, he was soon combining lexicography with academic work in Oxford. In 1904 he was appointed to a lecturership in Scandinavian languages, and in 1916 to the university’s professorship of Anglo-Saxon.
The OED might seem like quite enough lexicography for any one person, particularly when combining work on it with academic responsibilities. But Craigie had a grander vision. During the First World War he began to argue that the OED should be seen, not as the last word in English lexicography, but as merely the first step in a greater project: there was a need, he said, for further historical dictionaries, each concentrating on a particular period or regional variety of English, and each giving more detail than could be accommodated in a single comprehensive work. By 1919 he was advocating that work should commence on at least four dictionaries, compiled on the same historical principles as the OED, but covering Old English, Middle English, early modern English (dealing with the two centuries or so after 1500), and—a particular interest of his—the earlier centuries of the form of English spoken in Scotland. (Nor was his vision limited to English: he was also involved in a proposal that OUP should publish a series of bilingual dictionaries, although nothing was to come of these ideas.)
First, however, there was still the small matter of the completion of the OED, in which Craigie still had an important part to play. He had acquired something of a reputation for good planning: something much appreciated by senior figures at OUP, who were only too familiar with the tendency of lexicographical work to expand well beyond planned timescales and budgets. In the post-war years, however, he found himself having to wrestle with the difficulties of the letter U, and in particular with words beginning with un—of which there was an almost unlimited supply, as the prefix could be added to just about any word in the language. His struggles with this material seem to have sapped his resolve; or perhaps he was getting restless in Oxford in any case. His restlessness was brought to the attention of OUP in a rather drastic way in 1925, when he accepted an invitation to take up a professorship at the University of Chicago, where he had been invited to begin compilation of a historical dictionary of American English: another member of his envisaged ‘family’ of period and regional dictionaries—which had now grown to include a dictionary of modern Scots (later published as the Scottish National Dictionary), in the establishment of which he also played an important part. He had also by this point begun to work on what later became the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue; remarkably, he worked on both this project and his Chicago-based American dictionary concurrently with the OED, the editing of which he continued to share with Charles Onions, the fourth editor, until its completion in 1928, dividing his time between Chicago and Oxford (at a time when all the travelling had to be done by ocean liner rather than aeroplane). Craigie and Onions went on to share the editing of the one-volume Supplement to the OED which appeared in 1933; thereafter Craigie concentrated on the lexicography of Older Scots and American English until he (nominally) retired in 1936. It was perhaps only to be expected that his retirement would be a pretty active one, in which he managed to become involved in yet more lexicographical projects: he compiled a supplement to the standard historical dictionary of Icelandic, and played an important role in the setting up of a historical dictionary of Anglo-Norman.
Craigie’s ability to construct a plan of work and then—more or less—stick to it may have been appreciated by his publishers, but questions have been raised over the quality of his lexicography. He was undoubtedly a highly expert philologist, and received a thorough training from both Murray and Bradley in what was required of him as an OED editor; but he has been called the weakest of the four editors of the first edition. His work can occasionally be seen to show signs of rushing; and there were certain respects in which his lexicographical approach differed from that of his three fellow editors—respects which sometimes result in his work being more difficult to revise than that of his colleagues. On the whole, though, the differences are minor, and he is a worthy member of the quadrumvirate which his former pupil J. R. R. Tolkien jestingly dubbed ‘the four wise clerks of Oxenford’. (It was to Craigie that Tolkien owed his own job on the OED; forty years later he still remembered Craigie’s ‘kindness […] to a jobless soldier in 1918’.) To have made a contribution as significant as he did to the first edition of the OED would have been enough for most people; the fact that he conceived so many other major dictionary projects, and actually contributed over many years to several of them, makes his achievement a truly remarkable one.