Eliotic OED

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

OED editor Robert Burchfield was responsible for adding Woolfian, Poundian, Joycean, Yeatsian, and Audenesque to the dictionary while preparing the Supplement of 1976-86 (later incorporated into the Second Edition, OED2). There’s no Eliotesque or Eliotic in there, 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 Eliot.

Charlotte Brewer gives one account of how Burchfield manoeuvred on behalf of Eliot’s literary usages:

Burchfield reports that his inclusion of T. S. Eliot’s loam feet … was disapproved of both by some of the consulted scholars and by his “publishing overlords within OUP” … Nevertheless, Burchfield decided to retain this quotation, together with one he has also included from a poem by Donald Davie…which he thought might have been influenced by Eliot’s use. ”  [Brewer, Treasure-house of the language, p.185]

This may be bad behaviour, from a modern lexicographer’s point of view, but basically Burchfield didn’t care, because he liked Eliot and he liked loam feet. Finding Davie’s allusion was just an excuse to get the combination past his staff (“my staff have a genuine horror of poets”). Since the Supplement would cover “every realm of English vocabulary,” Burchfield figured, poetical combinations of the loam-foot kind would be mere golden specks in the whole work” (qtd in ibid).

I don’t know of any occasion in which Eliot himself wrote in to OED editors, but Burchfield certainly exchanged correspondence with Valerie Eliot on the subject of her late husband’s vocabulary. There’s the letters about the epigraph to Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, and whether TSE owned an OED or not.

And then there’s a series of letters from Valerie, editing The Waste Land drafts at the time, who wanted to know about “Bengal lights”. Later, Valerie wrote in to alert Burchfield that OED had overlooked TSE’s use of “mug’s game” in The Use of Poetry (1933), though it had quoted him for the same phrase in Elder Statesman (1959). Burchfield wrote back to say that they would certainly have used both quotations if they had had them at the time.

Maybe Burchfield was just flattering Mrs Eliot, but there’s plenty to suggest that Eliot got special treatment in the Supplement.

For instance, generally speaking when one makes a spelling mistake, it doesn’t get recorded as a new headword in the dictionary. But OED thought opherion merited this entry:

Used by T. S. Eliot, perhaps in error for orpharion.
a 1922 T. S. Eliot Waste Land Drafts (1971) 99 (title) Song. For the opherion.

More understandable, perhaps, though no less an indication of TSE’s considerable influence, is the headword objective correlative [“Term applied by T. S. Eliot to …” etc.], and the inclusion s.v. sensibility of the combination dissociation of sensibility [“T. S. Eliot’s term for…” etc.], as well as the new sense s.v. wasteland: “1.d transf. and fig., sometimes with allusion to T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922).”

Along the same lines as Eliot’s extension of the term wasteland in The Waste Land, OED2 supposes that in writing “not with a bang but a whimper” Eliot had expanded bang with a new allusive subsense:

2.b With allusion to T. S. Eliot’s line (see quot. 1925).
1925 T. S. Eliot Hollow Men v. 31 in Poems 99 This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. 1931 R. Aldington Colonel’s Daughter i. 56, I wish you’d all shoot yourselves with a bang, instead of continuing to whimper.   1953 ‘M. Innes’ Christmas at Candleshoe i. 16 Benison is going to end not with a bang but a whimper.    1959Times 16 Dec. 3/2 Here the world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with a slow, resigned sigh at its own criminal imbecility.

Well, perhaps. OED2 has 775 occurrences of “allusion to” in its definitions, of which about 110 are “to” authors or texts (the rest of the sort: “allusion to sense 1”, “allusion to the convict’s task of breaking stones”, etc.). That’s 0.0135% of all definitions. Of these, only 17 sources come up more than once, and 13 of those are books of the Bible. The rest are, in order: Shakespeare [8 times], Virgil [2], Milton [2] and T. S. Eliot [2]. So this is not exactly customary lexicographical practice, even in OED.

Then there’s the definition OED cribs straight from The Dry Salvages:

b. A whistling buoy. local U.S.
1903 G. S. Wasson in Century Aug. 538/1 ‘These here plaguy bell-b’ys an’ groaners is a ter’ble old nuisance, you!’ exclaimed Cap’n Roundturn. 1941 T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages 5 Groaner: a whistling buoy. Ibid. i. 8 The heaving groaner Rounded homewards‥Measures time not our time.    1947 C. D. White Handbk. Sailing xxii. 236 Effective at night in fog or low visibility, whistling buoys do not sound like a whistle but like a groan, and are called ‘groaners’ by seafaring men.

And there’s this little lexical innovation, also from Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, this time):

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

One glossator writes:

What’s this “smokefall”? There is no such word. No: but Eliot, the poet (“makers” is what Aristotle called poets), can make up the word, and none of us need be in any confusion as to what it means. High noon? No. Rosy dawn? No. The quivering heat of mid-afternoon? No. It is twilight, probably the most apt time for this sort of haunting vision. [Thomas Howard, The Dove Descending: A Journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, 2006 p.48]

He could have looked it up, under smoke, n. in OED. That’s because Helen Gardner wrote to Bob Burchfield in 1983 to ponder a definition for this term. What she came up with, somewhat poetical itself, appears with attribution, under smoke‘s special combinations:

smokefall [after nightfall] rare-1, ‘the moment when the wind drops and smoke that had ascended descends’ (Dame Helen Gardner)

I’ll say, it’s rare. Vanishingly so. But, if loam-feet, why not smokefall, right? A mere golden speck.  Only, if smokefall, why not Heaney’s riverbreath, know what I’m saying…?

Other Eliotic inclusions in OED are of the kind you often get with poets of a certain reputation. That is, they’re a mix of extraordinary usages (acridian, azyme, autarky, etc.), ordinary words used in ordinary ways (alibi, amateur, bike), and words both ordinary and extraordinary that most readers familiar with the poet would (or should) automatically recognize as coming from him.

These are associative and allusive triggers. In Defending Poetry, I wrote:

Some words in poetry are so associated with one poet that they take on metonymic qualities. ‘Etherised’, for instance, is Eliot; ‘gyre’, Yeats.”

[Rereading this, now I wonder about the question of orthography. Is  etherised Eliot, really? Or only etherized? I’m tending towards the latter, now.] In OED, words for which Eliot is cited and which strike me as strongly conjuring his work include: agonistes, anfarctuous, Baedeker, barbituric, behovely, burnt-out, chthonic, coffee spoon, culture, door-yard, gramophone, groaner, grimpen, gutter (v), hyacinth, juvescence, maculate, miasmal, mug’s game, muttering (ppl. a.), nee, objective correlative, pneumatic, polyphiloprogenitive, sawdust, semblable, shanti, smokefall, tereu , twit. Of those, only agonistes,  juvescence, and polyphiloprogenitive are words for which TSE is the first recorded user. For anfractuous and pneumatic, his is the first recorded use for that particular (numbered) sense. And perhaps one should add bullshit, as I’ve discussed before [“How to get “D’oh!” and “bullshit” into the OED], with Eliot buried in the source quotation: ” c 1915 Wyndham Lewis Let. (1963) 66 Eliot has sent me Bullshit and the Ballad for Big Louise. They are excellent bits of scholarly ribaldry.”

Any of those words might strike you as good Eliotic words. You might include others among the 504 headwords for which I have a less strong association. By now maybe you’re wondering why etherize isn’t among them. Surely the greatest use of that word in the twentieth century is Eliot’s:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Perhaps the Supplement didn’t think etherize, v., needed updating. In any case, it wasn’t revised. That line of Eliot’s still made it into the Supplement and OED2, though. You’ll find it s.v. table, as the first recorded use of that sub-sense:

I.5.d A surgeon’s operating-table; also, a table or slab on which a body is laid for post-mortem examination.
1917 T. S. Eliot Prufrock 9 Like a patient etherized upon a table.

As a postscript, I find that the March 2014 revision of etherize in OED3 has now quoted Eliot’s immortal line from “Prufrock.” Same goes for “A meagre, blue-nailed, phthisic hand“, which was quoted s.v. blue but not s.v. phthisic in OED2, and which now appears under both headwords in OED3 (updated 2006).

for related discussions, see “how different is poetic diction“, “Seamus Heaney in Between“, “From London to Potato: Seamus Heaney in Graphs” and “Measured Words“, all at the old blog, poetry & Contingency.


  • […] 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. […]

  • […] 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 audi­ence if I hadn’t […]

  • kts wrote:

    Come on, “dooryard” is Whitman’s if it’s anyone’s (you’d know that if you were American ;). Eliot’s “April dooryard” practically screams “WHITMAN ALLUSION HERE!” Incredibly, Whitman is not quoted in the OED’s entry for dooryard — a mistake, imho.

    smokefall rare-1“: Unfortunately, that precise-but-cryptic notation has been replaced by just plain “rare”, which is really just as cryptic and misleading, since hardly anyone is going to know they’re using it in their own private technical sense of “this is the *only* use, we looked and there aren’t any others”. (Actually, Wiktionary says the word has been re-invented since, with other senses, but this entry hasn’t been revised yet.)

    Woolfian, Poundian, Joycean, Yeatsian, and Audenesque — and furthermore, Whitmanesque and Shavian/Shawian (two separate headwords!), which unlike all the others come trailing a cloud of “mostly somewhat nonce” or “rare or nonce” derivatives: Whitmanese, Whitmania, Whitmannic, … and Shawianity, Shawify, Shawishness, … respectively. (That is, the OED still calls these “nonce” at the moment. Let’s see if they eventually purge the “nonce” label from them…) I wonder why only these two got all those extra words? Did Burchfield not think of including them until the end of the alphabet? And couldn’t find any for Woolf and Yeats? Joyceana is certainly in use.

    “There’s no Eliotesque or Eliotic in there”: There is now! Two Eliotics were entered in September 2018: George and T.S.

  • kts wrote:

    “patient etherized upon a table … s.v. table, as the first recorded use of that sub-sense”: this is another case like ocean liner or poker game, where it obviously didn’t start with Eliot. The OED3 revision antedated that sense with two quotations from the 1700s and two from the 1800s.

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