Ogilvie on Ellis.

Sarah Ogilvie (who wrote a “Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary” that I reviewed a decade ago) has a delightful LitHub essay on Alexander John Ellis, one of those impressively wide-ranging Victorian scholars:

[…] This morning held a special excitement: also spread out in front of him were Murray’s proof sheets for the first section of the Dictionary (words A to Ant)—all 362 pages of them. Murray had sent them to Ellis for his comment. As Ellis’s eyes skimmed the proofs, he could not help looking for his own name in the Introduction. He felt a sense of profound satisfaction to see “A. J. Ellis, Esq, FRS (Phonology)” listed between Prof. Frederick Pollock (Legal terms) and Dr P. H. Pye-Smith (Medical and Biological words).

Ellis’s passions were pronunciation, music, and mathematics, and his expertise in all of these areas had been sought by Murray who had had difficulty finding British academics to help him (by contrast, American scholars were eager to be involved). He had helped Murray with the very first entry in the Dictionary—A: not only the sound A, “the low-back-wide vowel formed with the widest opening of the jaws, pharynx, and lips,” but also the musical sense of A, “the 6th note of the diatonic scale of C major,” and finally the algebraic sense of A, “as in a, b, c, early letters of the alphabet used to express known quantities, as x, y, z are to express the unknown.” Ellis was happy to see these and other results of his work on the printed page, including the words air, alert, algebra.

Many people, not only in Britain but around the world, were eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first part of the Dictionary, and Murray particularly wanted Ellis’s opinion on the draft Introduction, which he knew he had to get just right. It all read perfectly to Ellis except for one section. “The Dictionary aims at being exhaustive,” Murray had written. “Not everyone who consults it will require all the information supplied; everyone, it is hoped, will find what he actually wants.”

Is it really exhaustive? Ellis wondered. What about slang and coarse words? He scribbled to Murray in the margin (and the page with the scribble still survives today in the archives), “You omit slang & perhaps obscenities, thus are by no means exhaustive. Though disagreeable, obscene words are part of the life of a language.” Feeling satisfied with his contribution to Murray’s landmark first part of the Dictionary, and admiring of the project as a whole, Ellis placed the corrected draft into an envelope and placed it by his front door, ready for the morning post. […]

By the time that section of the letter C was published for the Oxford English Dictionary the only cunt that was listed by Murray was cunt–, a cross-reference to the prefixes cont–, count- with no mention whatsoever of the female body part. Fuck was also left out. Although these old words had been in use since the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries respectively, they would have to wait until the 1970s to be included in the OED. Murray did, however, include pudendum, a word derived from Latin for “that of which one ought to be ashamed,” which he defined as “the privy parts, the external genital organs” with no reference to a woman or—God forbid—her vulva.

Each of Murray’s advisers had different notions of what was offensively salacious. His adviser on medical terms, James Dixon, who was a retired surgeon living in Dorking, Surrey, had been all right with including cunt, but absolutely drew the line with a word which he considered so obscene it had to be sent to Murray in a small envelope marked PRIVATE, sealed within a larger envelope. Inside the intriguing packaging was a message advising him not to include the word condom. “I am writing on a very obscene subject. There is an article called Cundum…a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well- deserved clap; also by others who wish to enjoy copulation without the possibility of impregnation,” he wrote to Murray. “Everything obscene comes from France, and I had supposed this affair was named after the city of Condom, which gives title to a Bishop.” But he had found a quotation from 1705 referring to a “Quondam” which made him rethink his assumption that it was named after the town in France. “I suppose Cundom or Quondam will be too utterly obscene for the Dictionary,” he concluded. Murray left it out.

Dixon was the man who unwisely advised Murray to delete the entry for appendicitis because it was, according to Dixon, just another itis-word. “Surely you will not attempt to enter all the crack-jaw medical and surgical words. What do you think of ‘Dacryocystosyringoketokleitis’? You know doctors think the way to indicate any inflammation is to tack on ‘itis’ to a word.” The word’s deletion turned out to be an embarrassment to Murray and Oxford University Press when, in 1902, the coronation of Edward VII was postponed because of the King’s attack of appendicitis. Suddenly everyone was using the word, but no one could find it in the Dictionary, and since the letter A was already published it could not be added until the Supplement volume in 1933.

But back to the summer of 1883. Murray received the corrected proofs from Ellis. He not only appreciated Ellis’s feedback but also trusted his judgement: he promptly deleted all claims to exhaustiveness and wrote, “The aim of this Dictionary is to furnish an adequate account of the meaning, origin, and history of English words now in general use, or known to be in use.” […]

Words were like children to Ellis. He loved them equally, regardless of whether they were common, technical, scientific, slang, or foreign. He read the Dictionary as though it were a novel. Some words gave him pure delight in both their sound and meaning such as absquatulate, to abscond or decamp, with a quotation from Haliburton’s Clockmaker. “Absquotilate [sic] it in style, you old skunk…and show the gentlemen what you can do.” But it was their sounds that captured his imagination most. The quality of a whisper or a creak; the stress of a syllable; high pitch or low pitch. […]

His book On Early English Pronunciation, published in five volumes between 1869 and 1889, traced the pronunciation of English from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century and established him as a world authority on English phonology, a pioneer in the field of speech-sound studies. For the nineteenth-century section of the book, Ellis enlisted the help of hundreds of informants across Britain and a small group of experts, including Murray and others within the OED network. The result was the first major study of British dialects.

No language yet existed for the patterns Ellis was identifying, so he often had to invent the words, which subsequently made it into the Dictionary: palatalized, to make a palatal sound (by moving the point of contact between tongue and palate further forward in the mouth); labialization, the action of making a speech sound labial (articulated with both lips); and labiopalatalized, a sound made into a labiopalatal (articulated with the front of the tongue against the hard palate and the lips). He also invented the words septendecimal, relating to a seventeenth (in music); and phonetician, which originally referred to an advocate of phonetic spelling, rather than its current meaning of “an expert of phonetics.” Quite a few of his inventions have since fallen out of use and appear in the Dictionary with a dagger sign (which indicates obsolescence) beside them, such as vocalistic, of or relating to vowels, and phonotyper, an advocate of phonotypy (another term which Ellis invented, meaning “a system of phonetic printing”).

Ellis was one of the phoneticians on whom George Bernard Shaw modeled the character of Henry Higgins, that master of pronunciation, in his play Pygmalion, later turned into the musical My Fair Lady. Higgins (as a bet with his gentlemen friends) teaches Eliza Doolittle to speak “proper” English; but Ellis had none of Henry Higgins’s snobbery or arrogance. He was a generous, down-to-earth man, a frequent correspondent with friends, happy to offer advice when asked, and always working to bring people together and support them.

Much more at the link, which I got from Arts & Letters Daily — I really should check that site more than once a decade or so (back in the early 2000s I was a faithful reader, and was upset when it briefly went dark in 2002).


  1. Arts & Letters Daily — I really should check that site more than once a decade or so (back in the early 2000s I was a faithful reader, …

    Yes I used to be a faithful reader. I do check in every now and then. It seems more and more of what they link to needs subscriptions.

    But chiefly: although the intellectual incisiveness hasn’t dropped off, I feel there’s only so many angles you can take on the subjects I follow, and by now I’ve read A&L’s takes [**] and they’re repeating themselves.

    Whereas the jaw-droppingness never ceases at the Hattery.

    [**] Of course A&L are only syndicating; I mean it’s the authors collectively that are getting samey. That’s says more about me than about the authors or the subjects.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one. And yes, there is a certain sameyness…

  3. David Marjanović says

    Although these old words had been in use since the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries respectively

    Update as of 2015.

  4. re-updated photo caption from that 2015 update:
    Fucking, Austria / (renamed Fugging as of 2021), / probably unrelated

    that ill-endowed shmuck has even more to answer for than i thought!

  5. “… characters [who] lurk in the mind for weeks only because one wants to meet and kick them.”
    [NYT review]


  6. Don’t think so; isn’t it just a straightforward joining of two verbs that apply to the same object: “meet [them] and kick them”? Zeugma is “a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses (e.g., John and his license expired last week) or to two others of which it semantically suits only one (e.g., with weeping eyes and hearts).”

  7. Stu Clayton says

    John and his license expired last week

    Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety. Is that zeugma, since it can be understood as “at ninety m.p.h” ?

  8. Cue (variation on) ancient joke: Madame Press died last week at ninety, as did all the passengers of the bus she was driving.

  9. The version I know is “My grandfather died in his sleep last week. His passengers died screaming.”

  10. two verbs that apply to the same object
    “a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses …”

    My thought was: if you’re going to kick someone, you’ll necessarily need to get close to them; but not to the extent of ‘meeting’/getting introduced/entering into conversation.

    So what extra is explicit “wants to meet” trying to convey?

    ‘wants to enter into conversation with’ vs ‘wants to kick’ are “different senses” of ‘want’ — or at least different varieties of wanting. But yeah I’m not sure that distinction/’jarring’ is sharp enough to meet the threshold of zeugma; hence my ‘?’.

  11. the alleged origin of the phrase:

    “When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.”
    ― Will Rogers

  12. John Cowan says

    Yeah, that sounds right. Of course, by modern (= WP) standards, soon no one will ever know anything that was said in the past, which will mean with the increasing reoralization of culture that all history will truly be bunk after all.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    I just by coincidence saw a nice quote about the OED: “Don’t you love the Oxford dictionary? When I first read it I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” — attr. David Bowie. I was a bit skeptical about the celebrity attribution, but then I googled up this post, wherein the attribution is verified and the wording is tracked to the transcript of a 1999 “BowieNet LiveChat.” https://thelifeofwords.uwaterloo.ca/bowie-on-oed/

  14. And Bowie was cribbing from Steven Wright (whose one-liner is more generally about “the dictionary”)

  15. “When I die, …”

    Heh, beginners. I don’t often die – but when I do, it’s ironic.

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