Having the last word: Charles Onions
The fourth and last man to be appointed editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was also responsible for seeing into print the last word in the Dictionary; but the word in question – zyxt – was not the last word to be published, nor was Charles Talbut Onions the last of the editors to join the Dictionary’s staff. He was, however, the one editor who lived long enough to pass on something of the accumulated wisdom of the compilers of the first edition to the new generation of Oxford lexicographers who recommenced work on the OED in the 1950s, making him an important link with the past.
Onions was invited to join the team of lexicographers working alongside James Murray in his famous Scriptorium in 1895: two years before William Craigie, who in due course became the Dictionary’s third editor. He had been studying at Mason College in Birmingham – later part of the University of Birmingham – where he gained a degree in French. But it was the College’s professor of English, Edward Arber, who introduced him to Murray in 1895. He seems to have taken to the work like a natural, and soon became a valuable member of Murray’s team; he also managed to make friends with Murray’s children, sometimes slipping out of the Scriptorium to turn their skipping rope for them when their father was called away. He would have been chagrined to know that they later recalled him as an unimpressive young man, and that they sometimes sang ‘Charlie is my darling’ behind his back. (Incidentally, while the numerousness of James Murray’s children is well known, it is often overlooked that Onions went on to have nearly as many: ten in all.)
Despite his lexicographical abilities, when in 1897 the senior figures at Oxford University Press began – not for the first time – to give serious thought to the possibility of engaging a third editor alongside Murray and Henry Bradley, to work independently on another portion of the alphabet as a way of speeding up the rate of compilation, the candidate they settled on was not Onions, nor indeed any of his colleagues in the Scriptorium, but an outsider, William Craigie. We don’t know whether Onions was disappointed; we do know, however, that the two men were soon working alongside each other. Craigie was first apprenticed to Bradley, and then in 1898 transferred to Murray, so that he would have experience of working with both of the Dictionary’s current editors.
And then, in the spring of 1899, came a brief and still unexplained interruption in Onions’s lexicographical career. He left the Scriptorium in April, suddenly, and under something of a cloud: just about the only shred of evidence as to what his misdemeanour had been is a carefully reticent letter from Murray in which he refers to ‘a grave error of judgement’, and suggests that there would be ‘considerable embarrassment’ if he were to return to work in Oxford. Be that as it may, within months he was indeed back in Oxford, and back at work on the Dictionary – but now as a member of Henry Bradley’s staff. It is very tantalizing that we are still in the dark about what happened; but it seems likely now that the truth will never be known.
And in due course Onions went on to become just as much of an asset to Bradley’s team as he had been to Murray’s, perhaps even more so. He displayed a real talent for tackling some of the most difficult parts of the Dictionary, including the entry for the verb set – which was ultimately to be the longest entry in the whole first edition – and many of the most grammatically challenging words in the language. In 1904 his grammatical knowledge bore fruit in the form of the book An Advanced English Syntax, which was to remain an important grammar of the English language for several decades. Recognition of his value to the OED itself finally came in 1914 with his appointment as the Dictionary’s fourth editor, responsible for the concluding portion of the letter S. His work on this was slowed, and eventually stopped, thanks to the First World War: his team of assistants was reduced by the departure of some of them to join up, and in 1918 he himself left Oxford, to make his own contribution to the war effort by working for the Admiralty. The precise nature of his work there is not clear, but it is at least possible that his linguistic expertise was put to good use in ‘Room 40’, the Admiralty’s cryptographic unit.
It was only in the spring of 1919 that the end of the letter S was finally completed. By then Bradley and his assistants had made a start on W, and Craigie had U and V in hand – much of V had in fact already appeared in print – so it made sense for Onions to advance to X. In fact the last three letters of the alphabet were complete by 1921 (in a single fascicle of 105 pages, ending with the famous zyxt), so that Onions did after all end up working on part of W. Indeed the very last portion of the OED to go to the printers – a range of entries including, fittingly enough, the word work – was completed by Onions in 1927. Surely, one would think, this really was ‘the last word’; but no – there was more lexicography to be done. By 1927 work had already begun on a one-volume Supplement to the Dictionary, the publication of which in 1933 marks the real completion of the first edition. Onions was initially the Supplement’s principal editor, but eventually he was to share the work – and equal billing on the title page – with Craigie, despite the fact that the latter was now based in Chicago.
1933 also saw the publication of another dictionary for which Onions could claim rather more of the credit. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – begun over thirty years earlier by a former barrister (and former vice-president of Corpus Christi College) named William Little – had been worked on by various other people, including Henry Fowler (of Fowler’s Modern English Usage fame), but it was under Onions’s direction that it was finally completed. He went on to be responsible for two subsequent editions of the Shorter OED, and numerous sets of addenda, over the next two decades; but his main lexicographical work during this time was the compilation of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, which he had nearly completed at the time of his death in 1965 at the age of 91. Thus he lived – and worked as a lexicographer – for longer than Murray, Bradley, or Craigie.
Like Craigie, he combined his lexicography with academic work in Oxford. He began in 1920 as a lecturer in English, and was subsequently the university’s Reader in English Philology for over twenty years. For over twice that long – from 1923 until his death – he was a fellow of Magdalen College, having been appointed to the fellowship vacated by the death of his colleague Henry Bradley. It was at Magdalen, in the 1950s, that he came to know a New Zealander named Robert Burchfield, who worked with him on various projects in English philology, and who in 1956 won his approval as a suitable editor for a new Supplement to the OED. Burchfield took up the position the following year, and – as a lexicographical novice – was soon thankful to be able to consult Onions on countless matters of editorial policy and procedure, sometimes cycling to the Onions family home in North Oxford almost daily. (He later also helped to see Onions’s etymological dictionary through to publication.)
Onions’s Times obituary suggested that he would be best remembered at Magdalen for ‘his reluctant conversation’ – he was a lifelong stammerer – and for his service as the college’s librarian. But of course he will be remembered for much more than that. While perhaps overshadowed by the three other, arguably more colourful editors of the first edition of the OED, he unquestionably made a major contribution to it, and also more generally to the study of English: a language in which he was said to take an almost personal pride, and which he once described as ‘a rum go – but jolly good’.