Women Dictionary-Makers Past and Present

Elsie Murray (left) and Rosfrith Murray (right), lexicographers on the first edition of the OED, pictured with their father James Murray, Editor of the OED (centre front) and back row: A. T. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, F. A. Yockney.

by Sarah Ogilvie

On International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to female dictionary-makers, present and past. Australia has had its fair share of English-language dictionary specialists including Jay Arthur, Ann Atkinson, Maureen Brooks, Pauline Bryant, Sue Butler, June Factor, Bernadette Hince, Joan Hughes,  Dorothy Jauncey, Lenie (Midge) Johansen, Nancy Keesing, Anne Knight, Amanda Laugesen, Alison Moore, Sarah Ogilvie, Pam Peters, Joan Ritchie, and Julia Robinson. As a young lexicographer at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in the early 1990s, I was surprised to discover that every lexicographer, except for the Director, was a woman. Globally, there are also prominent women: Katherine Barber (Canada), Dianne Bardsley (New Zealand), Jean Branford (South Africa), Joan Houston Hall (USA), Judy Pearsall (UK), and Penny Silva (South Africa), to name just a few.

Currently we have equal numbers of men and women at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and this seems to be representative of the early days of lexicography too. James Murray, first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was very open to working with women. He employed them as his subeditors, proof readers, and readers (who looked for citations). His own daughters, two of whom appear in the photograph above, Elsie Murray (1882-1952) and Rosfrith Murray (1884-1973), worked on the OED. They were joined by Rosalind Bradley, the daughter of Henry Bradley the second OED Editor.

Two extraordinarily accomplished women who worked on the first edition of the OED were the Misses Edith and Elizabeth P. Thompson of Bath. Established authors themselves (Edith Thompson wrote History of England (1873) and Elizabeth Thompson wrote the romance novel A Dragoon’s Wife (1907)), in addition to proofreading for Murray, the sisters read widely for the reading programme, contributing over 15,000 quotations for the first volume alone. They continued to proofread for the dictionary until publication of the final fascicle in 1928, a few months after which Edith died.

She lived long enough, however, to be present at the grand celebratory dinner with the Prime Minister at London’s Goldsmith’s Hall on 6 June, 1928. The guests drank Pommery Champagne and Chateau Margaux with their turtle soup and lamb. Because of her gender, Edith Thompson was denied a seat at the banquet and had to sit on the balcony with both Rosfrith Murray and Eleanor Bradley whose fathers had died before the dictionary was finished. Given that women were to receive the vote on equal terms with men three weeks later, and women had already been awarded degrees at Oxford for eight years, it is quite surprising that they were not entitled to sit with the men at this dinner. Recalling the evening which she spent on the balcony overlooking the proceedings, Rosfrith Murray wrote in a letter to the Secretary to the OUP Delegates, Robert W. Chapman, ‘I always felt deeply that my Father would like one of his name to be “in on the finish” since this was denied to him himself.’

7 thoughts on “Women Dictionary-Makers Past and Present

  1. Thank you, ANDC. A happy International Women’s Day to you too! They look like a serious bunch, perhaps it was all the turtle soup. Looking forward to many more blogging tidbits.

  2. They also knew how to have fun. I will show you some examples in future blogs !

  3. What a nice post–and how nice to know about this blog.

    (And what’s the contemporarily-festive equivalent of turtle soup…?)

  4. Glad you like it, Carol. Contemporary equivalent of turtle-soup – perhaps Vietnamese pho?

  5. Pingback: Ozwords, Lexico Loco, and A World of Englishes « Sentence first

  6. This seems to me a transcription to lexicography of the familiar journalistic divide between mostly-male reporters (with bylines) and mostly-female researchers (whose existence is barely acknowledged). No woman has ever been an editor on the OED, for example. Glass ceiling, anyone?

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