Robert Burchfield

Workaholic Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries
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The Independent Online

Robert William Burchfield, lexicographer and philologist: born Wanganui, New Zealand 27 January 1923; Junior Lecturer in English Language, Magdalen College, Oxford 1952-53; Lecturer in English Language, Christ Church, Oxford 1953-57; Honorary Secretary, Early English Text Society 1955-68; Editor, A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary 1957-86; Lecturer, St Peter's College, Oxford 1955-63, Tutorial Fellow 1963-79, Senior Research Fellow 1979-90, Emeritus Fellow 1990-2004; Editor, Notes and Queries 1959-62; Chief Editor, Ox-ford English Dictionaries 1971-84; CBE 1975; President, English Association 1978-79; married 1949 Ethel Yates (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1976 Elizabeth Knight; died Abingdon, Oxfordshire 5 July 2004.

Robert Burchfield was the last link with the last of the four editors of The Oxford English Dictionary, C. T. Onions of Magdalen College, Oxford, the college to which Burchfield went from New Zealand in 1949 as a Rhodes Scholar. That connection shaped his life, more than he knew when he arrived.

Burchfield's parentage was solidly working-class; he was born at Wanganui, on the west coast of the North Island, and went, not to its famous public school, "the Eton of the Southern Hemisphere", but to Wanganui Technical College: he was proud of that, and the city was proud of him, and gave him the Freedom of the City in 1986.

He went on to the English Department of Victoria University College, Wellington, in the first half of the 20th century the Alma Mater of many who, having gained Rhodes or Commonwealth Scholarships, went on to Britain and distinguished themselves as medievalists and linguists, or as Renaissance scholars. He was at Victoria College from 1940 to 1941, then served in the Royal New Zealand Artillery including two years in Italy, and returned to the college in 1946-48. He taught there in the year that followed his graduation: it coincided with the 50th anniversary of its foundation, and he wrote for that occasion the rarest of his publications, a brief history of the college.

When he turned up in Oxford in October 1949, properly clad in a graduate's gown, to attend Professor C. L. Wrenn's lecture series on Beowulf he seemed to his undergraduate contemporaries a formidable figure. Rhodes Scholars took a second BA in Oxford, after only two years. Magdalen knew him as a good rugby player, soon to become the captain of the Magdalen team, and his tenure of that captaincy showed his character, for he gave it up at the end of his first year because it deflected him from his work, was summoned by the Warden of Rhodes House, Sir Carleton Allen, and told that his duty lay as much on the playing-field as in the library: Burchfield did not give in.

Onions was the Fellow Librarian of his college, a daily, intimidating presence, Reader in English Philology. As such, he did not teach undergraduates, but he somehow took to Burchfield, and Burchfield learnt a lot from him informally. Formally Jack Bennett and C. S. Lewis were his tutors, and he went to Gabriel Turville-Petre for Old Icelandic. He gladly absorbed scholarship. Of those who were his contemporaries in the philologically oriented English Course I - for them there was no literature after the death of Chaucer in 1400 - no one's lecture-notes were as neatly written and as well organised as his, no one's mind was as clear as his.

Burchfield's last two years as a Rhodes Scholar were spent as a graduate student supervised by J. R. R. Tolkien on an edition of The Ormulum, a late-12th-century text the language of which requires knowledge of the early Scandinavian languages as well as, of course, Old and Middle English. Tolkien had the necessary erudition, and was an inspiring supervisor. (Indeed Burchfield chose "Tollers" as his hero for The Independent Magazine's series "Heroes and Villains" in 1989.) Burchfield's edition, however, was never completed. Sadly, when I last saw him in hospital, very ill with Parkinson's disease and no longer thinking clearly, he said, did I know, in another fortnight he would be handing in to the publishers the completed edition?

Bob Burchfield came over from Wellington newly married, to Ethel née Yates, a marriage dissolved in 1976, and from April 1950 their children were born. He needed money after the Rhodes, and during Bennett's year of study leave Magdalen appointed him as a Junior Lecturer, and then Christ Church appointed him as Lecturer from 1953 to 1957.

The growing family inhabited a college house near the railway station, and on the river, too dangerous it seemed to Ethel, who was anxious for the safety of their children, two girls and a boy. Bob may well not have noticed: he was so busy with teaching at Christ Church and at St Peter's, the college to which he was attached as Tutorial Fellow, and then Emeritus Fellow to the end of his life; as Honorary Secretary of the Early English Text Society, 1955-68; and briefly as editor with J. C. Maxwell of Notes and Queries. He was a workaholic, and he needed to be, seeing the low pay of academic jobs.

In 1957 Burchfield was appointed by the Oxford University Press to produce a supplement to The Oxford English Dictionary. The main purpose, as seen by the press, was to bring up to date that great work of reference that had become increasingly out of date; new words and new uses were to be authoritatively recorded. He knew that the whole of OED, Old, Middle, and Modern English, was in need of revision, yet all he was supposed to do was to add more recent information than was in OED. Readers of journals and books had to be commissioned to provide quotations, and when Burchfield nearly despaired of finding them many of his friends and colleagues, and their spouses, turned to, and wrote out slips with quotations.

As time went on the little house in Jericho, at the side of the press, was too small for so great an endeavour, and it was accommodated more spaciously in the house on St Giles, latterly occupied by the revisers of The Dictionary of National Biography. In 1971 the press appointed him Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries, and in 1972 the first of four huge volumes of his A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary appeared, the last in 1984.

Honours came to him from 1972 onwards. He was appointed CBE in 1975, Liverpool University gave him an Hon DLitt, as did in 1983 Victoria University of Wellington; he was President of the English Association, 1978-79, a foundation in Hamburg honoured him with the Shakespeare Prize in 1994. Wholly unpompous and not one bit status-conscious he enjoyed being honoured, and he was pleased that Terry F. Hoad and I edited a Festschrift for him (Words: for Robert Burchfield's sixty-fifth birthday, 1988). The happiest event was his marriage in 1976 to Elizabeth Knight, also a New Zealander, and at that time on the staff of the OUP at Ely House, London.

In Who's Who? Burchfield gives as the first of his recreations "investigating English grammar". If "grammar" includes lexicography and the history of the language, that supposed "recreation" defines his life succinctly; it indicates that work is his recreation. He helped Tolkien finish his edition of Ancrene Wisse in 1962, he helped Onions finish The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology in 1966.

Among his publications, he produced in 1986 The New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary, he edited Studies in Lexicography in 1987, and the volume of The Cambridge History of the English Language on English in Britain and overseas in 1994. And for the forthcoming third edition of The Oxford English Dictionary he strove to revise entries that have quotations from The Ormulum.

His last book, for the OUP (like almost all his work), is The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996). It shows his total grasp of the subject. The writing of it, though laborious, gave him pleasure, as did the many favourable reviews. Of course, he had prejudices, yet, unlike H. W. Fowler (the title of whose book he took over, though little else), he was permissive rather than prescriptive, and his entry prescriptivism in The New Fowler is not merely a model of clarity and of historical accuracy: it shows how he exercised his scholarly judgement. He was a practical man, not a theoretician of language.

He liked to quote what Dr Onions had said to him: "Lexicography can be done on the kitchen table."

Eric Stanley