An unusual lexicographer

Foxed 61

In the early 1980s, my summer job was helping out at the local newsagent’s in my home town, a small seaside resort in Northern Ireland. Apart from dusty tourist guides and Old Moore’s Almanack, there weren’t many books for sale. Tidying the shelves one day, how­ever, I came across a slim volume with an important-sounding title. Something told me that The Spoken Word: A BBC Guide was the book I had been wanting for a long time, without realizing it. I handed over £2 of my hard-earned wages, and took it with me when I went back to university that autumn.

Ever since then, books about words have piled up on my desk, including Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a Roget’s Thesaurus and the 1987 ‘Compact Edition’ (still huge) of the Oxford English Dictionary which came with its own magnifying-glass. But over the years Robert Burchfield’s little book – you might even call it a booklet – is the one that I have turned to most often. It helped me to learn how to write.

The Spoken Word, published in 1981, was produced in response to a wave of complaints to the British Broadcasting Corporation about falling standards in spoken English. A new era of broadcasting had begun in the 1970s, as the BBC changed from being the Reithian home of ‘received pronunciation’ to something broader, permitting more regional accents and informal language. Many people felt that the move towards linguistic diversity had gone too far, resulting in what the critic Anne Karpf so eloquently described in 1980 as ‘English as she is murdered on radio’.

The BBC felt that its broadcasters needed help in deciding what was acceptable and what was not, and commissioned a brief, no-nonsense guide from Dr Robert Burchfield. There was probably no one who knew the English language better, or how it had changed in recent times. Burchfield was the editor of the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, the great twelve-volume dictionary that had been published between 1879 and 1933. When he first took charge in 1957, Oxford University Press estimated that the work would produce a single volume within seven years. Instead the Supplement comprised 60,000 new entries, took up four large volumes and was not completed until 1986.

Robert Burchfield was, on the face of it, an unlikely lexicographer. Born in Waganui, New Zealand, in 1923, he later claimed that his parents had just one book in the house, a socialist tract. In 1944, while on wartime service in Italy, he stumbled across Frederick Bodmer’s The Loom of Language: A Guide to Foreign Languages for the Home Student. It was a book that changed his life, sparking off a fascination with words and their origins. After the war, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and moved to Oxford, where he was taught by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Burchfield might easily have opted for a quiet, scholarly life working on Old Norse poetry, but instead he accepted the challenge of bringing the Oxford English Dictionary into the twentieth century.

Updating the OED was a monumental task, requiring dogged patience and a team of dedicated workers, one of them the young Julian Barnes. The first two volumes of the Supplement (A–G and H–N) appeared in 1972 and 1976 respectively and, to his surprise and delight, Burchfield became something of a celebrity. He was a genial figure who featured on Desert Island Discs and regularly appeared on radio and television to give his views on current trends in spoken English. ‘I can’t understand what the young are saying any more,’ the former Prime Minister Edward Heath grumbled to him on the BBC’s Nationwide in the summer of 1979.

In The Spoken Word, Burchfield managed to offer soothing reassur­ance to the querulous while politely confirming that the English language was in flux, just as it always had been. ‘In what follows’, he says at the beginning of the book,

it is assumed that the speaker uses received Standard English in its 1980s form. The form of speech recommended is that of a person born and brought up in one of the Home Counties, educated at one of the established southern universities, and not yet so set in his ways that all linguistic change is regarded as unacceptable.

Although I hadn’t at that time set foot in England (and I was a ‘she’ not a ‘he’) it was clear that The Spoken Word was aimed at anyone who was interested in speaking and writing more clearly. Rather than strict rules of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, the book has ‘preferences’. Burchfield is like a knowledgeable friend who keeps a steady hand on the tiller, pointing out the occasional treacherous current and rocky outcrop while reassuring us that the boat is sea­worthy and safe. You feel you can trust him.

Much of his advice on pronunciation is still pertinent: ‘be careful not to garble words’, ‘avoid the use of reduced forms like “gunna, kinda, sorta, wanna”’. Other recommendations are showing their age, as you might expect. Who now places the stress on the first syllable of ‘despicable’ and ‘temporarily’, or makes the final ‘t’ in ‘restaurant’ silent? And, for that matter, does anyone now worry about the correct pronunciation of ‘contumely’? (Three syllables, not four, if you’re wondering.) Burchfield is sanguine about such changes, pointing out that ‘the pronunciations that are not recommended may well prevail, as time goes on, within a period of about half a century’.

In the things that matter, The Spoken Word has stood the test of time well. Burchfield recommends avoiding clichés (‘at the end of the day’) and using an unnecessarily long word when a short one will do (‘severe, harsh, cruel are better than “Draconian”’). Be precise, he advises broadcasters: instead of ‘industrial action’ ‘specify the type: strike, work to rule, overtime ban, etc’. Such echoes of long-ago bat­tles can be heard in his advice on how to pronounce ‘dispute’ (noun and verb). Burchfield prefers the stress on the second syllable for both but notes that ‘the influence of usage by northern trade union leaders is tending to bring the form with initial stress into prominence’. It is a reminder of how our spoken language is a reflection of our times, in this case the early 1980s stand-offs between the trade unions and Margaret Thatcher’s newly elected Conservative government (‘first ‘n’ fully pronounced and never ‘guv-ment’).

As a lexicographer, Burchfield was aware that the English language was becoming increasingly informal. ‘Slang is the language of the future,’ he told those who questioned its inclusion in the OED. Some uses of vocabulary were less negotiable than others, however. He notes that using disinterested to mean uncaring ‘attracts more comment from listeners than any other word in this list with the possible exception of hopefully’. In the sense of ‘it is to be hoped [that]’ this dangerous word is deployed ‘only by the brave or by young people unaware of public hostility to the use’, he warns. And even the bravest or most informal speaker should be aware of grammatical gaffes such as false concord. ‘Every one of those present were members of the union’ (Correctly: ‘Every one of those present was a member of the union’).

It is hard to disagree with this (did broadcasters really need reminding?), but one wonders how necessary it was in the 1980s to be able to carry through a sentence with ‘one’ as a subject. Just in case, Burchfield quotes Iris Murdoch to show how it should be done.

One’s best hope is to get into one of those ‘holes’ where one’s two neighbours are eagerly engaged elsewhere, so that one can concentrate upon one’s plate.

Relevant or not, such quotations make The Spoken Word a con­tinuing pleasure to read. Although the guide is ostensibly about the spoken language, Burchfield’s examples show how writers like George Bernard Shaw make anything possible. ‘If it doesn’t matter who any­body marries, then it doesn’t matter who I marry and it doesn’t matter who you marry.’ Language, in the right hands, can do any­thing it wants.

The duality of his approach can be seen in the section in which Burchfield sides with Fowler in making the case for the occasional split infinitive, and offers his own preference:

Avoid splitting infinitives wherever possible but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence already begun.

Then the schoolmaster gives way to the romantic, and he gives Iris Murdoch’s words as a ‘model example’ of a perfectly deployed infin­itive: ‘I wanted simply to tell you of my love.’

Robert Burchfield’s job as a lexicographer was to be dispassionate about language, but The Spoken Word reveals him to be a lover of words and literature. He quotes from writers as disparate as Fielding, Carlyle and Jowett, and Dryden rubs shoulders with Graham Greene and Martin Amis. His enjoyment in writing the book is plain to see, and it is infectious. He would have agreed with Virginia Woolf who said that words are, by their nature, impossible to pin down:

you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabet­ical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.

Her own spoken words – the only known recording of her voice – were captured by a radio broadcast in 1937, when the BBC still saw itself as a guardian of the language. In The Spoken Word Burchfield reminds us that words, like butterflies, should never be imprisoned. They will always escape in any case.

Ten years after I bought The Spoken Word, I replied to an adver­tisement requesting ‘a harmless drudge’ and soon afterwards joined a team of lexicographers at Cambridge University Press. The first edi­tion of the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, aimed at students of English as a second language, appeared in 1995 and was, I am pleased to say, a modest success. Nowadays, most people tend to consult an online dictionary or thesaurus, and it’s easy to find free advice on grammar and ‘good English’ via the Internet. But for some of us, there will always be room on our desks for books about words.

Ann Kennedy Smith is a writer and researcher in Cambridge. She is no longer a harmless drudge, but still loves words.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 61 © Ann Kennedy Smith 2019

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 61, Spring 2019.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £12; annual subscriptions from £48. For more information please visit

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