A nice obit (with lots of links; I’ve copied only the first) for lexicographer Robert Burchfield at The Blog of Death:

If you’ve ever wondered how to spell or define a word, Robert William Burchfield was the ideal person to ask for help.
Burchfield had a passion for the constantly evolving nature of the English language. A pre-eminent lexicographer, he became the editor of the four-volume “Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary” in 1957. During his three decades in publishing, including 13 years as the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Burchfield spearheaded a campaign to expand the OED’s World English offerings to include terminology from Australia, the Caribbean, India, North America, Pakistan and South Africa. He even published words in Maori, the language of a tribe from his native New Zealand.
Despite what may have appeared to be a rather tame desk job, Burchfield occasionally received death threats from folks who were offended by his decision to publish sexist slang and racial/ethnic colloquialisms. He even went to court to defend the OED’s right to define terms some people felt were derogatory…

Thanks to samuelad for the link.


  1. I never met Burchfield; but many years ago, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, I wrote to him with a question about the history of the OED. It was a trivial question — and I could easily have answered it for myself, if only I’d bothered to do a bit of research — but by return of post, back came a letter from Burchfield, handwritten, two pages long, giving me the information I’d asked for plus a few suggestions for further reading. When I think of the number of unsolicited letters from strangers he must have received in connection with his work on the OED, I’m astonished, and humbled, that he took the trouble to reply to me at such length. I bless his memory.

  2. A small nit to pick in that obituary: “Maori” is the name of all the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, not merely that of a tribe. Originally Maori needed no name to denote themselves collectively, since there were no other peoples to contrast their different tribes with. Since European contact the word “maori”, meaning originally “usual, common” has been co-opted for this purpose.
    Many Maori words have become part of New Zealand English. These include not just names for local artifacts, flora and fauna, but also cultural terms that now have common currency among English speakers, such as “mana” (reputation, power and prestige). Come to that, the word “iwi” would be as common in local English to denote a Maori tribe as the word “tribe” itself.
    About the words cited in the article:
    “Pakeha” is still a contentious word, and it must have been more so in the ’70s – I was a kid then so that kind of thing passed me by. It’s the Maori word for white non-Maori. Many people think it has pejorative connotations and dislike being labelled as Pakeha, preferring such odd expressions as “European”, even if their last non-New Zealand ancestors were generations ago. (I personally am happy to be a Pakeha, though still happier just to be a New Zealander). The word is good for a round of annoyed letters to the editor any time it appears with apparent official sanction.
    A “kete” is a bag woven from the long leaves of the New Zealand flax plant (Phormium spp). Such bags are commonly used for gathering seafood (kai moana), holding vegetables or simply as handbags. The more anglicised “kit” is in common usage too.

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