A Man of Many, Many Words…

Whether you’re a crossword lover, a meticulous scholar or simply an ardent logophile, you’ll have had cause at some point in your life to refer to the Oxford English Dictionary. What you might not know is that over 10,000 of the reference quotations used in that tome were seemingly contributed by one Dr. William Chester Minor, being held at the time in Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital, having been found not guilty of murder by reason of criminal insanity.

That got your attention. And you thought a dictionary couldn’t offer any surprises!

You might also be interested to learn that the colourful history of the Oxford English Dictionary shares a common chapter with that of the National Folklore Collection, UCD. Less criminal in nature, however, you’ll be glad to hear…

Sir William Alexander Craigie

Sir William Alexander Craigie (1867-1957)

Our focus today is on another wordsmith, Sir William Alexander Craigie (1867-1957). A Scotsman born in Dundee, and educated at St. Andrew’s University and at Oxford University, Craigie was an eminent lexicographer, philologist and literature scholar. He became the third editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1903-1933, following in the footsteps of James Murray, a fellow Scot, and Henry Bradley.

Born the son of a gardener, Craigie cultivated a passion for words and language from an early age, being fluent in his native Scots as well as in Scottish Gaelic. Having studied Classics and Philosophy at St. Andrews, upon graduation in 1888, and prior to his postgraduate work, he spent time in Copenhagen, the centre of Norse philology at the time, researching the Scandinavian languages, and eventually becoming fluent in Icelandic as well. This formative period would lead to a lifelong interest in Scandinavian and Scottish literature and language. But more of that later.

From 1893-1897 he lectured at St. Andrews before moving to Oxford in 1897 to take up a post with the Oxford English Dictionary staff. His first task? The letter G. Groovy! His impressive work ethic was noted from the outset, leading to a lectureship in 1904/05 in Scandinavian languages. From 1916-25 he was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. His successor would be the eminent philologist JRR Tolkien (he of Lord of the Rings fame, with his own links to the Irish Folklore Commission. Another surprise!).

But Craigie’s achievements did not end there. He would go on to compile and edit many other notable dictionaries, textbooks and titles on language, including A Dictionary of American English and A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, a project completed by others following his death. He would also spend time as a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Chicago, before eventually returning to Oxfordshire in retirement.

A distinguished scholar in the field of epic Icelandic poetry, known as rímur, he made many valuable contributions to the study of Icelandic and Scandinavian literature, drawing deeply on his own Scottish heritage and cultural background to cast new light on the rich threads binding these two literary and linguistic traditions. He compiled the complete Oxford edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, with previously untranslated tales being supplied by his wife Jessie Kinmond Hutchen. He also contributed to Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books series and his Dreams and Ghosts (1897). He himself authored Scandinavian Folklore (1896) and The Icelandic Sagas (1913), among many other titles, once again showcasing his broad polymathic interests.

And this brings us to the crux of our piece. Prior to his death at the age of 90 years in 1957, Sir William Craigie’s archive was purchased by the Irish Folklore Commission, predecessor to the current National Folklore Collection here in UCD. Having long-since understood the value of viewing Irish folk custom and tradition within its broader European and international context, the Commission was determined to offer a home to the Craigie Collection. Its contents, combined with the Commission’s growing oral archive, would allow for new perspectives on the rich tapestry of North European linguistic and folk tradition.

'Three lectures on The Romances of the English Dictionary' by Sir William Craigie

‘Three lectures on The Romances of the English Dictionary’ by Sir William Craigie

With his own handwritten notebooks, original lecture drafts, word lists, early manuscript drafts, story compilations, publications and library titles; this collection spans a lifetime. And what a life. A valuable resource for linguists, folklorists, historians and philologists, the Craigie Collection offers a fascinating link to a formidable character, one whose contribution to language still echoes to this very day.

The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
a fortunate stroke of serendipity

As it happens, Sir William Alexander Craigie would be 150 years this coming Sunday, 13 August 2017. A perfect occasion to tip the proverbial cap to this determined man of letters. A man of many, many words.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.

Additional Information

St. Andrew’s University and Oxford University also hold Craigie archive material. And for those interested in the colourful history of the Oxford University Dictionary there are a number of titles available on the subject, including Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2003. An OED-authored timeline appears here: http://public.oed.com/history-of-the-oed/dictionary-editors/

Leave a Reply