The Telegraph has a good obituary for Bruce Mitchell, whose Guide to Old English I own and consult with pleasure. I had no idea he was Australian, that one of his students was Terry Jones (of Monty Python), or that he’d had such a hard row to hoe early on:

Family circumstances prevented him from taking up the offer of a free place at Melbourne University, and after leaving school aged 15 he began work as a student teacher. At the same time he enrolled as a part-time student at the university, where he took a general Arts degree. Memories of the hard slog of holding down a full-time job while studying for a degree, he confessed, meant that he had little sympathy with Oxford students who failed to write their essays.

And I completely agree with him about anachronistic punctuation:

One of Mitchell’s particular concerns was the way in which modern translations add punctuation to Old English texts in ways that distort their meaning. In a seminal article, The Dangers of Disguise: Old English Texts in Modern Punctuation (1980), he drew attention to the way in which punctuation (the semicolon was a particular bugbear) – developed after the advent of printing – tended to destroy the ebb and flow of Old English poetry and prose, denying the reader insights into texts whose syntactical structure developed out of a tradition of oral storytelling.

Thanks for the link, Paul!


  1. “Everyman, I’ll go with thee
    And be thy Guide.”
    And if you don’t learn Old English,
    Then Devil take your hide.

  2. “..three famous poets known to some students uncertain about the use of the apostrophe as Keat, Yeat, and Hopkin”.”
    We had no views on “Hopkin” when I was a schoolboy, but we knew “Keat” as half of the famous double-act “Sheets and Kelly”. “Yeat” we knew as one third of the trio “Toilets, Yeast and the odd’un”.

  3. In biochemistry one sees plenty of references (and not only from students) to Kreb’s cycle. However, there was a translator who knew more German than biochemistry, and went one worse by translating “Krebs Cycle” from German to English as “cancer cycle”.

  4. I am ever so glad that the aforementioned article, which seems fascinating to me, is still withheld from my reading. After all, having only been published 30 years ago, could I really begrudge Oxford University Press the revenue stream it clearly still represents?

  5. John Emerson says

    Don’t get me started on that one, Z.D.
    $15 for a ten page article? Sure, glad to pay that!
    Your numbers may vary but I’ve seen prices that mad.

  6. It’s in JSTOR. (This should not be taken as an endorsement of OUP pricing policies.)

  7. Unfettered JSTOR access is the greatest factor that makes me regret dropping out of college and never returning. I suppose it combines with the shockingly low demand for 30 year-old linguistics articles among the media pirating community.

  8. John Emerson says

    There also seem to be extractive monopolies is hard-copy journal publication. Journals seem terribly expensive even though they’re subsidized, and even though the authors are never paid. Taylor & Francis seems to be one of the villains (I always have to look up their name, because Bartles & Jaymes is always the first “&” name that comes to mind.)
    But whay I was going to say: a certain proportion of modern poets, especially in French, eliminated punctuation, presumably to avoid the kind of specious unity and bogus tidiness that punctuation imposes on older poetry.

  9. shockingly low demand for 30 year-old linguistics articles among the media pirating community
    You’d be surprised. True media pirates are all about sticking it to the Man. Big studios, record companies and game producers may be the most visible (and popular) targets, but trust me, matey, OUP is not far behind.
    Not that I would know anything about it.

  10. The real irony here is that Bertolt Bundt led the league in RBIs three years running.

  11. Wow. That was not the right article to comment on. That… makes it funnier. I assert.

  12. You might check out your local libraries. I get JSTOR access (and a bunch of other resources) through my local public library’s website.
    Re: apostrophes – why do we use them again? I forgot. They seem kind of pointless.

  13. why do we use them again?
    To hang caps on?

  14. Why are people who share, often creatively, other people’s intellectual and artistic work called “pirates”, given that people who profit from monopolizing access to other people’s intellectual and artistic work are called “First Amendment-protected campaign contributors”?

  15. I don’t get JSTOR access through my local library. Being in Japan might be part of the problem. As far as I can tell, not being a student, I have no way to get to it at all. But at least I can rest safe at night, knowing that academics (or their heirs) are getting proper compensation each time someone reads one of their articles. Oh, wait, I forgot — they don’t get any compensation whatsoever, because it’s a scam and a shameful, ink-black blot on the history of scholarship, a rear guard action against the people at the EXACT instant that the long-dreamed for universal library became a realistic possibility. My mistake.

  16. I too had no idea he was Australian; and I too am very impressed with his Guide to Old English, which is well conceived but not entirely well executed. I have not seen the latest edition (the seventh), but in earlier editions there are annoying omissions and needless vaguenesses just where precision is demanded. The account of spelling and pronunciation is incomplete precisely where the reader will be looking to settle nagging uncertainties. Still, probably the finest conspectus of Old English available.
    As for Bruce and Australian philosophers (see the obituary), we do make use of that sketch from time to time. It is not unknown for one philosopher to complement another in a seminar with “Well said, Bruce.” But where I last worked as an academic philosopher most were named Steve; so I told my students they could call me Steve too, if it would make their lives simpler to do so.

  17. We are all Steve now.

  18. Sure, Steve. Is not all one? I (sc. we) wonder if Steve and Steve will agree to this expeditious shift in onomastic policy? It promises to iron out any confusions brought on by our addiction to pseudonyms.

  19. Perhaps he (they) will join in the festeveities.

  20. John E: “A Sewell & Cross young man, A Howell & James young man, A pushing young particle, What’s-the-next-article, Waterloo House young man!”

  21. I trust any Steves with doctorates who are reading this have already signed up at Project Steve, but just in case ….

  22. A-stevedoring we shall go…

  23. It was a dark and stevely night…..

  24. John Emerson says

    It was a dark and stormy night. Reverend George Haddock was returning the carriage and horses to the Jerry Merrill Livery stable at the corner of Third and Water Street when he noticed a group of men standing watching him. The time was 10:15 p.m.
    The Bulwer-Lytton opening still lives. This is from a recent article on the 1886 murder of the prohibitionist Rev. Haddock in Sioux City, Iowa.

  25. Compensation, rarely goes to the creator but to he that scatters it.
    Printer controlled the money flow, ’twas why Paine took pains to print his own stuff, along with many others.
    The real farmer rarely gets his due, the wholesaler controls the price.
    The true Inventor rarely gets the credit or the dough, It took 20 years+ for the guy that gave us the microchip to get some recognition.
    It has improved but too many lose the rights to their minds output, so they may eat.
    He who can put his ‘monika ‘ on the output gets glory, thus many a producer gets the leaves and the cream is lapped by topcat.

  26. marie-lucie says

    It was a dark and stormy night. …
    For a minute I thought that the new author would turn out to be Dan Brown.

  27. John Cowan says

    All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life, and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage.

    Alas, this isn’t eligible for the competition, for Conan Doyle began “The Five Orange Pips” (a story so inconsistent that Asimov speculated that Doyle had written it in his sleep) with it in 1891.

    Nor is this:

    It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground. The house shook. Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook. She wasn’t usually afraid of weather. —It’s not just the weather, she thought. —It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

  28. I once bought a paperback edition of the Book of Kells, and the friendly salesperson asked me, “What’s a Kell?”

  29. John Cowan says

    “I’m from Yonkers.” “What are Yonkers?”

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