Old white man of the day

The New York Times


Dr Robert Burchfield was a world-renowned scholar. Hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “the greatest living lexicographer”, he played a crucial role in the study of the sources and development of the English language.

Born in Wanganui, New Zealand, in 1923, he was educated at Victoria University College, Wellington and then at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. At Magdalen College, Oxford, he studied under C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Burchfield was enthralled:

“There I was … talking to world famous people. And I had the privilege of just talking to them, hearing their reaction to what I was saying. I knew I had arrived in some sort of paradise.”

Lord of the Words

Through shared interests in medieval literature and philology, he developed a close relationship with Tolkien. In an article “My Hero” (the Independent, 4 March 1989), Burchfield describes John Ronald Reuel Tolkien as “the puckering fisherman who drew me into his philological net”. As an aside, it is pleasing to draw a happy Kiwi symmetry between three lovers of language: Tolkien, as a language weaver, a writer of some of literature’s best loved works, mentor to Burchfield, an esoteric lover of words who would become editor of languages’ most respected catalogue. Tolkien will have his great work, The Lord of the Rings, realised on film by New Zealand director Peter Jackson.

Burchfield became a lecturer in English Language and Literature immediately after graduation, and was encouraged by C.T. Onions, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, to become involved in lexicography.

In 1957, Burchfield was appointed editor of the definitive 16,750 page, 46 kilogram Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, which was published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986. He was chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary between 1971 and 1984. The Dictionary’s authority is so widely acknowledged that it needs no validation here. that, “on every day, including Sunday, six people buy an Oxford Dictionary every minute.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary, is regularly number one on best-selling lists in Britain. As Burchfield said to the Evening Post in the 1980’s, “it’s ahead of all the books on dieting, and all the books about Diana. We have no idea who’s buying them. We just know they are popular.”[…]

Keeping it Current

An exhilarating aspect of a living language is that it always changes. Much of Burchfield’s talent was to integrate this dynamism into the process of the dictionary, recognising the influence of context on its shape. This involved a concession that possibly only a colonial could make: “Our language is changing slowly and America is leading the way now, not Britain”. The British Empire may have been responsible for the global colonisation of the English language, but much to the disgust of traditionalists (and the French) the globalising forces of commerce, technology, and Hollywood mean that the ‘purity’ of the language has been invaded. This has been largely by ‘Americanisms’, but also by local appropriations and reworking.

Accordingly, among Burchfield’s many contributions to the Oxford Dictionary was his innovative reading programme, which targetted modern as well as historical language. Burchfield’s programme involved shifting through journals, specialist magazines, newspapers and more, everyday, looking for new words that had to be approved by the editor. The launching of the Oxford English Dictionary on the internet in March 2000 extended this process, making it even more expansive and organic.

With an ‘open-minded attitude rather than prescriptive’ he broadened its scope to include words from many countries including North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and the Caribbean. He also instituted increased coverage of slang and colloquilasims, as well as scientific and technical terms.

Burchfield was Emeritus Fellow of St Peters College, Oxford, and received honorary doctorates of literature from the University of Liverpool and Victoria University. He was a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, in 1975, received a CBE. His policies continue to serve as guidelines for the on-going process of the dictionary. End of quote:

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WH is a pale, stale, male who does not believe all the doom and gloom climate nonsense so enjoys generating CO2 that the plants need to grow by driving his MG.

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