Joyce in the OED.

John Simpson (the OED’s Chief Editor from 1993 until his retirement in 2013) had an OUPblog post yesterday (June 16th, or Bloomsday: “Joyce wanted to commemorate the day in 1904 when he first walked out in Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle”) about the history of the celebration of the day and about Joyce as a source of OED citations:

The first Bloomsday was celebrated publicly in Ireland in 1954, its 50th anniversary, when writers Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Davy Byrne’s pub, and Bloom’s “home” at 7 Eccles Street, reading parts of Ulysses and drinking generously along the way (pictured in the featured image). The Times Literary Supplement has little to say about Bloomsday until the late 1950s. This date profile is supported by a Google ngrams word profile.

The OED’s reception of Joyce follows a similar pattern. Ulysses was published six years before the completion of the First Edition of the dictionary in 1928. But although the OED was full of references to the literary heroes of the past, it was entirely silent about Joyce. It could have cited him: Dubliners, for example, was published in 1914.

Joyce was still absent from the first Supplement to the OED in 1933. But the situation changed with the second Supplement (1972-86). Here it was hard to avoid Joyce, who leapt onto the leader board of most-cited authors. The vast majority of his 1,709 quotations derived were provided by a single OED contributor, Roland Auty, a retired English master from Faversham, Kent, and author of Nesfield’s Errors in English Composition (Madras: 1961). OED Editor Bob Burchfield wanted to see modern writers better represented in the dictionary: ‘like a medieval scribe,’ he recalled, ‘[Auty] copied in his own handwriting many thousands of 6×4 inch slips on which he entered illustrative examples for any word or meaning that occurred in Joyce and was not already entered in the Dictionary.’


When the Second Edition of the OED was published in 1989, it contained 548 terms first attributed to Joyce. With the revision almost 40% complete, exactly one hundred of those usages have been replaced by other, earlier examples: eyeslit rockets back from Ulysses in 1922 to Noble’s Geodaesia Hibernica (1768); prurition plummets to Claude Lancelot’s Primitives of the Greek Tongue (1748); rib steak migrates to Charles Elmé Francatelli’s Modern Cook (1846). None of this reduces Joyce as a writer, but allows us to refine the areas in which his true creativity lies.


  1. Nnngggh. I’ve spent Ghu knows how much time saying “Shakespeare didn’t make up all those words: he is just the first person to use them in writing whose works have survived.” And now a former OED editor undercuts me. Is there no justice?

  2. I’m afraid not.

  3. marie-lucie says

    JC, that has long been my opinion about Shakespeare too.

  4. Sure. What popular dramatist (Hollywood screenwriter, in modern times) is going to use words the audience won’t understand?

  5. January First-of-May says

    I agree about Shakespeare (though there are perhaps a few words that he did make up), and said as much on my first ever Language Log comment (over four years ago).

  6. A thought just occurred to me. Surely Shakespeare was followed by lesser imitators, though I couldn’t name any of them. Wouldn’t many of them imitate his penchant of using obscure words (slangy or invented, as your taste dictates)?

  7. Joyce liked to use obscure words that he had picked up from various sources. He also liked to make up his own words.

    From a dictionary-maker’s perspective, the question about the first class of words is where did Joyce find them, and who else used them. For the second class of words, the question is has anyone else ever used them. If Joyce invented a word, and no one else has ever used it, I don’t think it needs to go in a general-purpose dictionary.

    Have any of Joyce’s inventions entered the general vocabulary? I could see it happening, particularly in Dublin. I don’t believe the immortal Joyce ever mentioned the “Hoor in the Sewer”, but Dubliners are a verbally inventive bunch, and I can see them latching on to some of his coinages.

    (A few years ago I had a one-day layover in Dublin on the way to somewhere else, so I went on one of those walking tours. We got a surprisingly erudite explanation of some of the opening passages of Ulysses. I suppose our guide was a Trinity student working in the summer hols.)

    The problem with Shakespeare is that there’s so much less documentation. It was a period when making up new words was a popular thing to do. I can imagine the groundlings saying “Did you hear what he said? Bang! I like that! Bang!” Whether Shakespeare made up the word himself or nicked it from someone else is hard to tell.

    It’s an area ideally designed for the battle between those who like to diss the non-universitied Shakespeare for having “small Latin and less Greek”, and those who want to build him up as the great authorial representative of the true spirit of the common man. Since there isn’t much in the way of actual evidence, the lexicomachy (if I may venture a word) is free to continue indefinitely.

  8. I’d be interested to hear from a contemporary Serious Linguistics Person who did believe that Shakespeare was unusually lexicogenic (relatively speaking). John’s position is pretty much standard at this point, isn’t it?

  9. I don’t believe the immortal Joyce ever mentioned the “Hoor in the Sewer”

    How could he? It wasn’t built until 1988, when Joyce had been, like the pig in the Barrister’s Dream, “dead for some years”.

  10. “Alex Kafoozelum” is not in the OED.

  11. @maidhc: Then, of course, there are those who claim he was too well read to be a common man. Poor bard can’t catch a break.

  12. It looks to me from a couple of experiments I’ve been running like the rate of first citations in OED (for entry and for sense) of non-Shakespearean verse drama is actually significantly higher than of Shakespearean verse drama (and WS is actually also below the mean for all OED sources, and more so for OED sources of the period, in terms of % of quotations in the 1st rank). Whether raw counts or rates are more indicative of [whatever] is obviously an open question.

    As for Joyce, funny that Simpson would choose compounds to illustrate his point, since evidence for compound, affixative, and attributive forms in OED was never as rigorous in terms of earliest dating (nor was intended to be) as it was for lemmas. But if you’re interested :

  13. Ouch – also on “eyeslit” – more than once I heard Simpson assure assemblages of harrumphy Oxford types that “nothing is being taken out of the OED” – but Joyce’s quot for “eyeslit” :

    1922 Joyce Ulysses 55 He watched the dark *eyeslits narrowing with greed.

    You will no longer find in OED3. Five quots replace it, with the nearest being:

    1917 B. Moses Louisa May Alcott vii. 111 Everyone looked alike, draped in white sheets, a white cloth with eyeslits over the face.

    Which is a great quot. But we could have kept the Joyce, no? And if you say that Joyce means something different, well, I agree. But can we not record that, too?

    PS Simpson’s assurances are not untrue in one sense – technically quots are being “suppressed” from view, not deleted – but the difference only obtains on the clear side of the data divide.

  14. Yes, in an online edition, with no space constraints, it’s hard to see why they should “suppress” a Joyce citation.

  15. marie-lucie says

    I have never run into “eyeslits”, but the quotations seem to refer to different things: the first one to the appearance of half-closed eyes, the second to apertures in the sheet enabling the wearer to see.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Sure. What popular dramatist (Hollywood screenwriter, in modern times) is going to use words the audience won’t understand?

    Well, there’s always treknobabble: context explains it to the extent the audience needs to understand it, and beyond that it doesn’t mean much…

    the quotations seem to refer to different things

    I agree.

  17. IIRC Shakespeare also gained a few first-uses between OED1 and OED3, where the estimated date of the play has been shifted back, or the putative antedating has shifted forward, or was written by a Russian who later failed a drugs test.

  18. John Cowan (June 17, 2016): And now a former OED editor undercuts me.

    No, he certainly does not. With regard to Shakespeare, John Simpson made a point of debunking that myth in the Preface to the Third Edition. With regard to Joyce, his point (as maidhc said) is that Joyce drew a lot from the world around him, which we’re getting better and better at documenting, so he loses artificial first-use stats.

    Simpson explains the point better at the James Joyce Online Notes, his retirement project, where he keeps meticulous, constantly updated notes on Joyce’s words in the OED and which of them are being antedated, quarter by quarter. The purpose is:

    … whereas he was previously regarded as extraordinarily innovative lexically (even in the years before Finnegans Wake), there is now a widespread appreciation that he actively sought out the ephemeral language of his time – and particularly of Dublin in his time – copying excerpts into his notebooks and assimilating these into his works. It is not surprising, then, that the OED’s editors are now able to rediscover for themselves some of this hidden layer of language into which Joyce tapped.

    So he’s saying, we should read Joyce as *connected to his context*, and his context wasn’t that well represented in previous editions. It was always pretty silly to credit Joyce with the first use of enthusiasm ‘object of (often short-lived) interest or passion’, or dreck. Simpson, drily:

    Remarkably, neither the original OED nor its Supplements contained an entry for unremarkably. The term eventually entered the dictionary in December 2014, with an earliest reference from Joyce, culled probably from the FW concordance. Since then, however, common sense has reasserted itself, and earlier evidence has been discovered.

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