‘Dictionary mongers’


This letter from Nov 1937 came to light among our archive collections. We are grateful to Dr Chris Stray for elucidating the context of this extraordinary outburst in this guest post:

The writer of this characteristic letter was Robert Gunther (1869-1940), founder of the Museum of the History of Science; it was addressed to Harold Johnson, Secretary of the Medieval Latin Dictionary Committee.

Gunther’s father, Albert Günther, was a naturalised German who had been employed at the British Museum to classify snakes in 1857, and ended up as its Keeper of Zoology 1875-95.  Gunther senior was a prolific writer, built up his department’s collections and library, and was prone to issue biting criticisms of other scholars.  In all of these aspects, his son resembled him. Robert Gunther entered Magdalen College in 1888, applying to the college because it had its own (Daubeny) laboratory. Gaining a first in morphology (zoology) in 1892, Gunther was appointed college lecturer and then tutor in natural science (1896-1920). As well as running the laboratory, he also acted as curator of the nearby University Botanic Garden for several years. Work on a history of the laboratory (published in 1904) led him into antiquarian research; meanwhile he was building up its collection of old scientific instruments and its library. During World War One, Gunther planned to open a museum of the history of science in the Old Ashmolean building, and was encouraged by his friend Lewis Evans, who in 1924 presented his valuable collection of scientific instruments to the university.  Gunther persuaded the university authorities to make two rooms on the upper floor of the Old Ashmolean available to house the collection, his leverage coming from the donation of a collection worth £12,000 to the University.

Gunther’s long-term plan was to take over the whole Old Ashmolean building for a history of science museum, but he faced resistance from several quarters. His fellowship at Magdalen had been ended in 1920, and he had had lost his main patron with the death of Sir William Osler in the previous year; but he was a vigorous and determined fighter, and battled on regardless. His opponents included the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (ironically, Lewis Evans’ brother) and D.G. Hogarth, Keeper of the (new) Ashmolean Museum, who had their eyes on the Lewis Evans collection. The Bodleian Library, which used the basement as a book stack, wanted to expand into the rest of the building. The middle floor, consisting of a single grand, pillared room, had been used since 1901 by the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary reached the end of the alphabet in 1928, but a supplementary volume was then worked on till its publication in 1933. At that point Gunther, who had been pressing for more space for the collection, stepped up his campaigning, deploying the Friends of the Old Ashmolean, a pressure-group he had set up in 1928: but in vain. The OED team had already been joined by the editors of the new (9th) edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which was published in fascicles between 1925 and 1940. Later on, after the completion of the OED Supplement, they were joined by a team working on the Oxford Latin Dictionary, which eventually appeared between 1968 and 1982. In his biography of Gunther, his son Albert wrote (pp.216-7):

It had always been maintained by the compilers of the [Oxford English] Dictionary that proximity to the Bodleian was essential. One lexicographer to hold most strongly to this view was Professor H. Stuart Jones (Camden Professor of Ancient History), a member of the Hebdomadal Council who, engaged on a new edition of Liddell and Scott, maintained that the work could not be done elsewhere, until, that is to say, he moved to Aberystwyth, where work on the Lexicon continued.

Gunther had secured approval of the collection as a university museum in 1933, and in 1935 was appointed (though without salary) Reader in the History of Science. But his museum was still confined to two rooms on the top floor of the building. Even here, he was apparently reminded of the dominance of the dictionary-makers. He wrote in 1933 that

The Delegates [of the Clarendon Press] never realized what a monkey house their employees made of the Old Ashmolean. How their young male assistants used to keep rushing up the stairs with their latest lexicographical slips to the upper room where shrieks of feminine laughter rewarded their lexicographical discoveries.

 (Gunther, article on the Old Ashmolean, Oxford Magazine 18 May 1933, 670, quoted by A.E. Gunther, p. 217)

The request from Johnson for Gunther’s help thus touched the tenderest of nerves. It is possible that Johnson was unaware of the history of the issue, and Gunther’s was simply one of several names written to for assistance; if not, the letter was surely with tongue in cheek. Robert Chapman, named by Gunther as chief villain, was Secretary to the Delegates of OUP from 1920 till 1942. Chapman had begun his career as Assistant Secretary in 1906 after gaining a first in Greats. His published work centred on the editing of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, but he had a lifelong interest in lexicography, and contributed to the revision of Liddell and Scott. As a science fellow of Magdalen, Gunther had struggled against the opposition of the classical tutors to some of his schemes; he will have seen the resistance of Chapman and his allies to his museum scheme as a continuation of this battle between science and humanities.

Gunther died in 1940, his ambitions for the Old Ashmolean still frustrated. In the following year, however, the lexicographers moved from the Dictionary Room to new quarters in the Bodleian Library’s Old Schools Quadrangle. The Museum of the History of Science now occupies the whole building, just as he had planned.


A. Gunther, Robert Gunther:  A Pioneer in the History of Science, 1869-1940 (Oxford: OUP, 1967).

J. Morrell, Science at Oxford 1914-1939 (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 263-7.

A.V. Simcock, Robert Gunther and the Old Ashmolean (Oxford: Museum of the History of Science, 1985).


My thanks to Richard Ashdowne, Peter Gilliver and Ian Jackson for their help.

Send more books

The British Academy’s Medieval Dictionary Committees’ first major task was the assembly of the evidence on which the eventual dictionary was to be based. Whitwell’s original proposal called for this to be done by what amounted to a small army of volunteer readers, in the manner of the reading programme adopted for the Oxford English Dictionary, to which he had been a prolific contributor. This was indeed the course of action eventually adopted.

Among these volunteer readers was B[ernard] W[inthrop] Swithinbank (1884-1958), a District Commissioner in the Burmese Division of the Indian Civil Service, who read many dozens of texts over the course of around two decades from the mid 1930s and sent in many thousands of slips during his time in Rangoon, Burma and later back in England, where he lived in Maidstone in Kent and was a leading member of the Kent Archaeological Society.

Project folklore has handed down tales of him reading his texts sitting on top of an elephant on his travels through Burma. Sadly the extensive correspondence with Swithinbank in the DMLBS archives has failed to confirm this particular detail. However, folklore also hands down that he would send telegrams back from Burma asking the project to ‘send more books’. Here the archives confirm this account. Scores of letters reveal his seemingly insatiable appetite for texts to read and excerpt for the project over the years, many of which were bought by the project and shipped to him in Burma, sometimes arriving but sometimes going astray, presumably due to enemy action.

We have here two telegrams, from 1940 and 1941, sent by Swithinbank from Rangoon, the first acknowledging receipt of a parcel but anxious for more work, and the second confirming his view (expressed also in letters from the time) that a parcel of books that had been shipped from Blackwells had not been delayed but in fact lost (at sea).



Note in the second of these that Charles Johnson, who had been joint editor of the Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources, was working at HMP Shepton Mallet in Somerset, to which large quantities of Public Record Office documents had been moved for safekeeping during the Second World War. Johnson had retired from the PRO in 1930 but was recalled to service in 1941 (aged 71), working again until 1946. He worked tirelessly for the cause of the dictionary project right up until his death in 1961, just as the Revised Word-List was on the point of completion and plans were starting to be discussed for work to start on the dictionary proper.

Without the contribution, however, of readers such as Swithinbank — and the surviving correspondence shows there were many such readers, though few as prolific as him — the eventual dictionary would scarcely have been possible. Here is one of the thousands of slips he produced (with annotations from the editorial team):

Swithinbank slip

Advertising the Word-List: on this day 80 years ago

A letter from 16 April 1934 from Charles Johnson (joint editor, with J H Baxter, of the Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources) to Sir Frederic Kenyon of the British Academy records the suggestion that:

it would probably be wise to have a small leaflet for circulation [to possible purchasers] … a page of the Word-List on the back of the Title-Wage [sic, l. Title-Page] would be quite enough and not too expensive.

This two-page leaflet was duly set up:

Word-List leaflet
Word-List leaflet verso

In June 1934 the London house of Oxford University Press proposed the production of 3750 copies of this flier to be distributed to:

The cost of distributing apart from the printing was to be £2 per 1000 plus the ½d. stamp,  unless they were able to go out with another leaflet ready at the same time for the same or similar audience.


Classical Association 1931/2014

By happy coincidence, today’s archive find relates to the Classical Assocation’s general meeting of January 1931: this year’s annual CA conference is currently in full swing at the University of Nottingham.

In 1931 the work of the then medieval Latin dictionary committee was presented to the meeting by Charles Johnson, secretary of the committee. His presentation was reported in the Times on the following day (8 Jan 1931).

The Times 8 Jan 1931

(Click on the image to see at full size.)

What is perhaps most interesting is the fact that contrary to the views reported here, still decades later the same arguments are in fact having to be made that medieval Latin has a ‘beauty and character of its own’ and is not merely ‘some degenerate and barbarous jargon’ only of interest those studying medieval theology. The diversity, quality, and sheer vitality of medieval Latin in Britain alone is more than enough to show the superficiality of viewing medieval Latin as a failed attempt at earlier classical norms, which sometimes authors chose and strove to respect and sometimes they had the confidence and talent to eschew. If the now finished DMLBS goes some way to underlining the significance of the language and to making it more accessible to the modern world, the project as described here by Johnson and conceived two decades earlier by Robert Whitwell has achieved one of its key aims.


Another archive find relating to Ronald Latham. There is no indication of authorship:

omnes cartophylaces festive laetantur
odae nostrae veraces illi gratulantur
cujus gesta vivaces vino celebrantur.

verba in principio coacervabantur
chaos insensibile et nox reducebantur
quae cum hic apparuit mox ordinabantur.

heros noster editor cum Latinitatis
in gazophylacio mediae aetatis
sapienter sedebat verba veritatis
dictitabat honeste. cobba utebatur.

sensibus jam distinctis liber imprimatur
Reginaldi Lathami in quo gloriatur.

Now one and all in his honour are gathering
Friends and AKs at a party you’ll find.
Witty and true are the verses we sing
As his prowess is wined.

In the beginning were words in their masses heaped
Chaos complete and the darkness of night.
Lo he appeared! In the verbal confusion
Soon there was light.

Wisely he spake as he sait in the treasure-house
Middle-Age-Latin’s true home and abode.
‘Using his loaf’ was his phrase for the elegant
Truth that he showed.

Definitions have been made
(Dogmatised or hinted)
Ronald, we are proud of you!
Let them now be printed.