Did TSE use OED, SOED, or COD?

[UPDATE 9/15: If what follows interests you at all please see this update: “Two Notes on T. S. Eliot and the OED“]

Or, Possum’s Practical Books of Words.

obrienselfieOn the internet and everywhere else people are confusing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with other Oxford English dictionaries, such as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED), the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD), the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) and Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO). Each work is different in key respects–though no wonder there’s confusion among them, with such titles. In fact this has been going on for some time. Here I try to set the record straight on T. S. Eliot’s use of Oxford dictionaries. In my next post I’ll have a look at Oxford dictionaries’ uses of T. S. Eliot.

Eliot is among the many poets who have had something to say about dictionaries. For instance this, in a BBC interview from 1940, quoted over at “Examining The OED“:

The dictionary is the most important, the most inexhaustible book to a writer. Incidentally, I find it the best reading in the world when I am recovering from influenza, or any other temporary illness, except that one needs a bookrest for it across the bed. You want a big dictionary, because definitions are not enough by themselves: you want the quotations showing how a word has been used ever since it was first used.
Charlotte Brewer comments [in a passage also found in Treasure House of the Language: The Living OED (Yale 2007) 191]:
This tempts one to think that Eliot was thinking of the OED, but Valerie Eliot confirmed to [OED editor] Burchfield in 1988 that ‘her husband possessed a copy of the Shorter Oxford but not of the OED itself’.) … Burchfield had suspected as much, given that the title-page of Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) bore an epigraph ‘purporting to be the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for sense 1 of the word definition. In fact it was from the Shorter.

Well, interesting. Certainly we tend to assume that when people talk about authoritative dictionaries in English, they intend the OED, as we assume Auden did when referring to “the dictionaries (the very best,/ money can buy).” But in doing so we tend to overlook the obvious fact that actually owning a ten or twenty-plus volume NED or OED can cost quite a lot of money, and take up quite a lot of space in the house.

So did Eliot have the Shorter in mind when talking to the BBC? I’m not so sure. The Shorter, although it traces the development of meanings over time, doesn’t include very much in the way of quotations. But then, it’s much easier to imagine poking around in the Shorter while getting over the flu than having to go fetch this or that volume of OED. Of course, just because he did not own the thing doesn’t mean he didn’t consult it, even frequently, not in bed perhaps, but at a local library or at the offices of Faber and Faber. Perhaps he was confusing the two, with the memory of perusing a household SOED grafted to the memory of what can be read in the OED.

Certainly Eliot did consult the OED, at least in preparing his lectures and essays, even if he may well have consulted the Shorter far more frequently, perhaps as a preliminary resource. There are seven references to Oxford dictionaries in the prose, which I enumerate below. Interestingly, like in the radio description, it is often unclear which publication is being referred to, or quoted.

The first apparent reference is from 1930, in an essay called “Arnold and Pater”:

If, as the Oxford Dictionary tells us, an aesthete is a “professed appreciator of the beautiful”, then there are at least two varieties… [Selected Essays p.399]

Now we have two problems: the first is that Volume 1 (1888) of what would become the OED defined aesthete as “One who professes a special appreciation of what is beautiful,” a formulation which clearly has much in common with Eliot’s phrase, but which also differs in key respects.  Problem two is that there was (and still is) no Oxford Dictionary. What would later be called the Oxford English Dictionary at that time bore the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (NED). The Shorter isn’t a candidate because didn’t come out until three years later (with the same definition as OED).

Where we do find exactly that definition is in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a work first published in 1911 and edited by Fowler and Fowler. Problems solved, at least on the attribution side. However, there’s plenty of evidence that the work being published in volumes as A New Dictionary was being referred to in parlance and in writing as “the Oxford Dictionary” (e.g., a lecture by OED editor Wm Craigie advertised in 1924 on “the History of the Oxford Dictionary”), and little to show that the Concise was referred to this way. Eliot’s reference might still therefore have been taken the wrong way.

Two years later, in a Charles Eliot Norton lecture–just months before the NED would be reissued, with supplements, as the OED–Eliot does refer specifically to the multi-volume work:

“Invention” in the sense used here by Dryden does not seem to me to be properly covered by the New English Dictionary, which quotes this very passage in support of the following definition: “The devising of a subject, idea, or method of treatment, by exercise of the intellect or imagination”. [The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) p.48]

Next we have two quotations from Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). The first is the epigraph mentioned by Brewer above. I will come back to that later. Later we get the following:

the Oxford Dictionary tells us that education is “the process of bringing up (young persons)”; that it is “the systematic instruction, schooling or training given to the young (and, by extension, to adults) in preparation for the work of life”; that it is also “culture or development of powers, formation of character.” We learn that the first of these definitions is according to the use of the sixteenth century; and that the third use appears to have arisen in the nineteenth. [Christianity and Culture, 1721-2]

Here again we have the vague reference to “the Oxford Dictionary” which persists in the popular understanding of the lexicographical landscape. Note that Eliot doesn’t italicize the title, but does capitalize “Dictionary”, and calls it “the” (but not “The”) implying that there can only be one.

But there are at least two, and probably three! How to decide between the OED, SOED, or COD here? Well, COD’s definition of eduction differs significantly. But both OED and SOED have almost identical definitions, and both agree on the year of first use. The only difference is that the OED has quotation marks around ‘bringing up’, which do not appear in SOED, nor in the Eliot quotation. Not strong evidence, but enough to think that perhaps “the Oxford Dictionary” might mean the Shorter, here.

The next three examples come from the later collection of essays To Criticize the Critic. The first employs the vague title again, and again the quotation conforms to both the OED and SOED definition.

Immemorial, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means: ‘that is beyond memory or out of mind; ancient beyond memory or record: extremely old.’ [To Criticize the Critic p.32] 1948

The second is unambiguously the OED:

This leap is not so puzzling as it might seem, when we look at the quotation illustrating this meaning from the Oxford English Dictionary, taken from the Voyages of Captain Cook (1790): ‘Their pacific disposition is thoroughly evinced. [To Criticize the Critic p. 64] 1950

The third returns to the vague referent:

They will find their way into the English vocabulary as well, and eventually into a supplement to the great Oxford dictionary. They will first appear in the vocabulary of that very large section of British society whose speech is constantly enriched from the films, and with make their way through the tabloid press to The Times, in The Times proceeding from the levity of the fourth editorial article to the solemnity of the first editorial article; and so their dictionary status in Britain will be assured. [To Criticize the Critic, p. 47] 1953

Given the slippage between OED and SOED in Eliot’s reference to “the Oxford [D/d]ictionary”, one wonders which he means, here. You’d think he intends the great big one, not the shorter one, but…

And what about that epigraph to Notes towards the Definition of Culture, which Burchfield suspected–and Valerie Eliot apparently confirmed–came from the Shorter? Here it is:

definitionThe OED definition of definition, published in Volume III (1897) and still unchanged today, goes like this:

†1 The setting of bounds or limits; limitation, restriction. Obs. rare.

c 1386 Chaucer Wife’s Prol. 25 Yit herd I never tellen‥Uppon this noumbre diffinicioun.    1483 Caxton Gold. Leg. 403 b/2 Thenne said he ben they knowen which men shal suffre thyse passyons without dyffynycion.

That the definition is somewhat abridged is not, I don’t think, a very big deal–a matter of three or four words which one might naturally omit for reasons of space or clarity. The date, however, is odd, and suggests that OED might not have been the source. If one is familiar with the formatting of SOED entries, as Burchfield of course was, the “rare” between parentheses (instead of in italics as in OED), followed by the dash-date, might lead one to suspect that this definition of definition is in fact from the Shorter. And indeed it is:

definitionI’m not sure why SOED ignores the 1386 quotation OED cites, but in any case it’s clear that Eliot is getting his definition from the Shorter, and misattributing that definition, as well as the date of first use, to the OED, just as Burchfield suspected.

Perhaps Eliot meant to replace it with an echt OED definition between draft and proof stage. Perhaps he (or an editor) believed OED and SOED definitions always to be identical, as they sometimes are. Or perhaps Eliot’s idea of “the dictionary” is really a composite of OED and SOED (with COD, too, maybe) such that he has trouble differentiating them in his mind.

And that’s the most interesting thing in all this forensic drudgery: beyond the evidence that Eliot used COD, SOED, and OED, and beyond the fact that he called all of these “the Oxford Dictionary”, the striking thing about the BBC interview that got this started is that Eliot seems to have a hybrid of two or perhaps three dictionaries in mind when describing “the most important, the most inexhaustible book to a writer.” I guess maybe the Bible functions similarly, with different translations melding together into one great book, such that you might well misattribute a verse you find in the Geneva Bible to the KJV. But it’s hard to think of another such example, where a set of authorities that can so easily stand in for one another, since authority usually depends so much on the specificity of the credentials.


  • […] but arguably Eliot has a special place in Burchfield’s Supplement, and therefore in OED2. In my last post, I discussed how Eliot used the OED and other Oxford dictionaries. Here I discuss how OED2 used […]

  • why SOED ignores the 1386 quotation OED cites

    It doesn’t, in fact. The en-dash followed by “1483” means “last seen in 1483” in SOED format. Unfortunately, Eliot or his editor transformed this into an em-dash, misleadingly suggesting that the sense was first used in that year.

  • Aha. A total confusion, then. Maybe something in the forthcoming letters and/or prose will shed light on this.

  • […] here hap­pily that these two pieces started their lives as posts to this blog–respectively “Did TSE use OED, SOED, or COD”, and “Eli­otic OED”. I’m not sure if I would have thought to write them for a schol­arly […]

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