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Five Hundred Years of the King’s English

The Oxford University Press and the Spread of Learning: An Illustrated History

by Nicolas Barker
Oxford University Press, 332 pp., $25.00

A History of the Oxford University Press Volume I: To the Year 1780

by Harry Carter
Oxford University Press, 640 pp., $48.00

Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

by K.M. Elisabeth Murray
Yale University Press, 386 pp., $15.00

The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800

by Lucien Febvre, by Henri-Jean Martin, translated by David Gerard
Schocken Books, 378 pp., $25.00

Sir Herbert Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poems, published by the Clarendon Press in 1912, was sent to Rupert Brooke for review. Musing upon the book as an indisputably fine thing, Brooke listed other grand institutions, including “Charing Cross Bridge by night, the dancing of Miss Ethel Levey, the Lucretian hexameter, the beer at an inn in Royston,…the sausages at another inn above Princes Risborough, and the Clarendon Press editions of the English poets.” And among these he made a temporal discrimination. “The beer and the sausages will change,” he admitted, “and Miss Levey one day will die, and Charing Cross Bridge will fall; so the Clarendon Press books will be the only thing our evil generation may show to the cursory eyes of posterity, to prove it was not wholly bad.” Peter Sutcliffe has quoted this encomium in his informal history of Oxford University Press, partly for its intrinsic interest, and partly to illustrate his assertion that by 1914 OUP had established itself “as a national institution with a responsibility to survive in the interest of civilization as a whole.”

The history of OUP is deemed to start in 1478, when a printer named Theodoric Rood came from Cologne to Oxford and published the Expositio Sancti Hieronymi in Symbolum Apostulorum. The book had two errors on its title page; one of attribution, one of typography. The true author of the Expositio was not St. Jerome but Rufinus of Aquileia, and an “x” was dropped from the Roman date, making it MCCCCLXVIII rather than 1478. It is universally agreed that OUP has greatly improved its work in both respects. The several books published to mark Oxford’s quincentenary are impeccable productions. Nicolas Barker’s illustrated history is a gorgeous book, as handsome as the exhibition held in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York to celebrate the same event. Harry Carter’s book is a detailed history of OUP from 1478 to 1780, and it includes as an appendix a list of extant Oxford books published between 1690 and 1780, excluding Bibles, Testaments, and Books of Common Prayer which would be “too numerous to mention.” Peter Sutcliffe’s book skips through the early years to concentrate on the period from 1860 to now. His pages are too crowded with print to be as beautiful as Barker’s or Carter’s, and I spotted a misplaced quotation mark as evidence, presumably, of the informality mentioned in his subtitle, but I find no other fault in a notably inexpensive and lively book.

Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Sutcliffe tells the story of the Press mainly through the people who managed its policy and saw that the books were published: his leading characters are Charles Cannan, Lyttelton Gell, Henry Frowde, Alexander Macmillan, Humphrey Milford, Bartholomew Price, Kenneth Sisam, but he has rich material also on Jowett, Murray, Fowler, and many other men associated with the Press. Carter’s men include Rood, Scolar, Barnes, Archbishop Laud, Bishop Fell, and Sir William Blackstone, but he takes enough time and space to give fascinating accounts of the technical problems involved in the early years of the Press, the acquisition of exotic types, and the fortunes of the Press in an age of political and religious quarrels. Mr. Carter is much and properly concerned with charters, “print and privilege,” royal constraint, censorship, the paper wars of belief, definitions, theologies. But in one respect the three books I have mentioned leave me in the dark: the relation between the University and the Press is rarely clarified. Did the Press conduct its business, from the beginning, as a virtually autonomous institution under the loosely construed auspices of the University and subject only to the nominal ratification of its activities by the Delegacy? To what extent did (do?) the delegates of the Clarendon Press take into account the curricula of the University, the research of Oxford scholars, the requirements of Oxford undergraduates, in selecting books to be published? The relation between University and Press is still vague to me.

I mention the matter because I have been reading Lawrence Stone’s essay “The Size and Composition of the Oxford Student Body 1580-1909”1 and he has many references to the charges of corruption and Jacobitism directed against Oxford in the first years of the eighteenth century, culminating in the University’s open sympathy with the Jacobite rebellion in 1715. I hoped to find these exacerbations treated in Mr. Carter’s book, but they are noted only briefly and by implication in references to Thomas Hearne and the difficulties he faced in publishing the truth. Admittedly, the archives of OUP are so extensive that Mr. Carter expects to need three large volumes to deal with them, and even with that allowance he has not promised to say much about the University itself or the social and political pressure exerted from time to time upon the dons who occupied themselves with the Press. But I would like to feel that pressure in his pages.

These books, then, are internal histories of OUP; they are not directly concerned with the social conditions in which the Press worked and works. Or with the impact of print, the theme of The Coming of the Book, David Gerard’s translation of L’Apparition du Livre (1958). Readers of The Gutenberg Galaxy will recall that L’Apparition du Livre was one of the many books which Marshall McLuhan cited in support of his account of “typographic man.” They will also recall that McLuhan ascribed to the printing press the rise of nearly every form of cultural life from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. A short list would include visual perspective, individualism, nationalism, the fixed point of view, the shift from words as performance to words as meaning, visibly observed relations, the separation of meaning from voice and sound. Febvre and Martin ridicule the old notion that “the Reformation was the child of the printing press,” but they show that printing, and especially the quick production of posters which could be nailed upon cathedral doors, proved to be important in the development of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.

Luther would not have gone beyond Wittenberg without his handbills and flugschriften. Febvre and Martin also emphasize the relation between vernacular publication and nationalism, and the eventual destruction of “the unified Latin culture of Europe.” The Princeton scholar Lawrence Lipking has recently quoted Heine on this theme.2 In The Romantic School Heine made a creative error in confusing Faust with Gutenberg’s financier Johann Fust, naming Faust as the inventor of the art of printing, the art which gave Knowledge victory over Faith, “die dem Wissen einen Sieg über den Glauben verschafft.” Heine thought, of course, that this shared knowledge would result in a social and political brotherhood more beneficial than the purely spiritual brotherhood offered by Catholicism. If we can have all this and Heaven too, so much the better, but meanwhile we should put our money on knowledge.

In an essay on Girolamo Cardano, reprinted in Abinger Harvest, E.M. Forster said that for a century or so after the invention of the printing press men were still mistaking it for an engine of immortality and hastening “to commit to it their deeds and passions for the benefit of future ages.” Plenitude was increasingly conceived in personal terms; one’s own knowledge shared; one’s own experience tendered. Shakespeare found it easy to use the terminology of printing to favor another form of reproduction, as in Sonnet II, where Nature

carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

It seems clear that until the end of the seventeenth century people were pretty thrilled with their new toy, and that the proliferation of books didn’t begin to irritate them until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when books started getting on the nerves and under the skin of Pope and Swift. The clue is Latin. Febvre and Martin say that 77 percent of books printed before 1500 were in Latin, mostly religious incunabula, with texts in classical literature and law making up the rest. Latin began to lose out to the vernacular languages about 1530. After that, there is a shift from faith to knowledge, in Heine’s version, or from one concept of authority to another, from doctrine to feeling, or from one kind of reader to another, from “clerisy” to “the common reader.” Print rendered impossible the continued proximity of the sign to any authenticating Logos. The mass production of books deprived each book of the aura, the sacred quality inherent in any unique object. Even the Bible lost its radiance, opened itself to each reader’s interpretation, an experience to be disclosed and shared rather than a statutory revelation, the Word incarnate.

OUP is important in this respect. The prestige of the Press is largely based upon three factors, its Bibles, its dictionaries, and the scholarly works entrusted to the Clarendon Press. The main problem in the Clarendon Press has normally been clear: once you choose the unsalable, how do you sell it? The books by Harry Carter and Peter Sutcliffe are informative on this question. But the three books about OUP treat the Bibles and the dictionaries as separate transactions. I think they are closely related. Is it fanciful to suggest that Bible and Dictionary came together to form not a sacred text, a Book of Revelation, but a domestic morality? The Word of God, for centuries mediated through the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, was eventually secularized as the King’s English. King replaced Pope, Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) became the new version of authority. A Little Quincentenary History 1478-1978, issued by OUP as a guide to its larger enterprises, refers to the opening of offices and branches throughout the world and says that “in O.U.P.’s eyes, education and scholarship would follow Queen Victoria’s Empire, no part of which was to be deprived of the benefits of British civilization as evidenced by Oxford books.”

Precisely: the history of OUP is an imperial theme because its greatest and most typical books replaced the presence of a speaker by the presence of an institution, not the British Empire but, a more durable thing, the English language. The constituents of that empire are not bureaucrats, soldiers, governors, and gunboats; they are signs, names, sentences, usage, grammar, a White syntax, habits of commentary, interpretation, classical and European texts in English translation, dictionaries which translate foreign tongues into the King’s standard English. Simon Gray’s new play The Rear Column, which I saw in London a few weeks ago, is based upon his understanding that Victorian officers and gentlemen, on service in Africa, felt a direct connection between moral authority and linguistic power. Monsters they might be and often were, but they spoke the Queen’s English. They punished recalcitrant natives by imposing sentence, often the whip, but their authority issued from their command of English sentences. The connection between Bible and Dictionary is that the English language was deployed, and continues to be deployed as far as possible, as the secular substitute for the propagation of the Faith.

Education and scholarship would follow Queen Victoria’s Empire”: yes, in several senses. Soldiers, civil servants, and businessmen would open up the territory, and the OUP would come later with Bible and Dictionary. But even after Queen Victoria’s delegates had departed, and Empire dwindled, the OUP books remained. Presence in personal form was not required. In De la grammatologie Jacques Derrida writes of writing as the disappearance of natural presence, “cette écriture comme disparition de la présence naturelle.” But a book is a pretty good substitute for natural presence, if the presence was imperial and the book is the epitome of moral authority. McLuhan has referred to English as the “P.A. system” for the West: true, and it issues from Westminster or from Oxford, places which, like the Vatican, have moral authority disproportionate to their latitude. English has become the dominant international language among those people whom the English are prepared to regard as civilized or ready to be civilized. English literature provides the poor man’s classics. When Dr. Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster, described the idea of a new dictionary in 1857, he spoke of “the love of our own language, what is it but the love of our country expressing itself in one particular direction?” And again he said that “language may be regarded as a ‘moral barometer,’ which indicates and permanently marks the rise or fall of a nation’s life.”

Trench’s sentences are taken from Hans Aarsleff’s The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860 (1967) and are quoted again in Caught in the Web ofWords, Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather, James Murray, the great lexicographer, first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray started work on the Dictionary in 1877, produced the first volume (A-Ant) in January 1884, and kept the whole thing going until he died in 1915, leaving the enormous task to be completed by Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and Charles Onions: the last volume came out in 1928, with a supplement in 1933. Further supplements are not yet complete.

Murray’s life makes a story of extraordinary interest, and it is splendidly told. One of the most revealing episodes in the history of the Dictionary involved a dispute between Murray and the great classical scholar Benjamin Jowett, who had the cheek to send Murray a document called Suggestions for Guidance in Preparing Copy for the Press. Jowett maintained that slang terms and scientific words should both be limited to such as were found in literature. Murray knew and retorted that any such excluded word would stand a good chance of bursting on the world “as famous poisons, disinfectants, anaesthesiants, or cholera prophylacts, and so be in everybody’s mouths.” As Ms. Murray remarks, this happened over appendicitis. One of Murray’s voluntary readers protested against trying to include medical words:

What do you think of “Dacryocystosyringoketokleisis”? Of these there is no end; and such jargon as they are! Only yesterday I met with “appendicitis”—to mean an inflammation of the appendix. You know doctors think the way to indicate any inflammation is to tack on “itis” to a word. Peritonitis is almost Anglicised, but Corneitis, and Gastritis, and Perichondritis are euphonous in comparison with a thousand other abortions.

Murray consulted the Regius Professor of Medicine and on his advice omitted the word, only to find it all over the newspapers when Edward VII’s coronation was postponed in 1902 because of the removal of his appendix. So the word made its first OED appearance only in the 1933 Supplement, where it is defined as “inflammation of the vermiform appendix of the caecum,” its first use transcribed from the American Journal of Medical Science of October 1886. Jowett’s desire to make English literature the arbiter of decency in usage was thwarted by Murray, who knew that it was a futile criterion. The dictionary was to be based “on historical principles”: for modern usage, the signs of the times were to be read mostly in newspapers and journals.

On April 21, 1832, according to Table Talk, Coleridge said that there had been three silent revolutions in England: “first, when the professions fell off from the church; secondly, when literature fell off from the professions; and thirdly, when the press fell off from literature.” Murray knew those falls, and wasted no spirit in regretting them. Perhaps he was content with the degree of stability imposed by the printing presses themselves, by dictionaries, grammar books, which always tend to draw usage toward an authoritative center. He was interested in dialects, as the author of The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland (1873), so he may have felt that the authorized version of the King’s English implicit in the great OED could well afford to take its examples where it found them.

Ms. Murray does not go into this question, but it seems implicit in her narrative. Ostensibly, the OED is neutral, disinterested, it resorts to “historical principles” without proposing to tell history its business. But in fact it is a secular Bible, mediated through reformed doctrines of judgment and taste which are deemed to be uttered in the King’s English. The King has ousted the Pope. When Henry Fowler proposed to R.W. Chapman an idea for a book eventually called Modern English Usage, Chapman told him that such a book, a Utopian book, would sell very well in Utopia. In the event, Modern English Usage has sold triumphantly everywhere, because it amounts to a book of good manners, a courtesy book, a manual of etiquette published in 1926 just when the completed OED had demonstrated that linguistic manners have been nearly unmanageably diverse.

Modern English Usage was reprinted four times in the year of its publication, including an impression of 50,000 copies for the US where Putnam’s issued a special edition. I have no information on the current sales of the book, but it has lost much of its authority. So has the doctrine of Standard English. The great OED is still recognized as a masterpiece, but only by those who care for such things. Coleridge called them the clerisy, meaning a nation’s learned people, “whether poets or philosophers or scholars,” and thought that they were crucial in a society as points of rest: “there could be no order, no harmony of the whole, without them.” These are the people who consult the OED. But they are in the position of that other clerisy, Latinists in the sixteenth century who resorted to Latin for stability and continuity when the world was resorting to the vernacular languages for other and more immediate reasons. Standard English, the Queen’s English, is the Latin of the West: for millions of people, it is their second language, used on formal, diplomatic occasions, or when high financial matters are to be transacted.

But relatively few people speak Standard English as their native or first language: we speak dialects, idiolects, in regional accents. Westminister and Oxford are nominal centers. No other human being speaks as the Queen of England speaks in her Christmas message to her people. It is vulgar to explain this phenomenon by saying that Her Majesty is simply a dessicated, boring speaker. What she speaks is not English but the idea of English, and it falls dead from her lips because the idea, the ideal form of the language, is archaic, its god has disappeared. Idea, spirit, voice, idiom, and meaning have split apart. The Queen’s purposes are identical in this context with those of Oxford University Press, a fact appropriately marked by the special copy of the Bible which OUP printed for Her Majesty’s coronation in 1953, and the equally distinguished copy of the same text which the Press printed to celebrate her silver jubilee in the present year.

The idea shared by Queen and Press is simply this: Britain. The Queen is its symbol in every respect, the Press in one only, the English language. But the imperial motive, thwarted in the political sphere, is still lively in linguistic and cultural ambitions. Peter Sutcliffe’s book begins and ends with a significant image. When I was away at school, maps of the world showed the British Empire in bold red. Mr. Sutcliffe’s book begins and ends with a map of the world showing only the offices and branches of OUP. There have been some failures: offices in Peking, Shanghai, Lahore, Beirut, Addis Ababa, Lagos, and Belfast are now closed. Russia remains unattempted. But OUP has a trading post in so many places that Mr. Sutcliffe and his publisher are only mildly exaggerating in referring to the world as “the O.U.P. at large.”


Coming of the Book June 15, 1978

  1. 1

    The University in Society: Volume I: Oxford and Cambridge from the 14th to the Early 19th Century, edited by Lawrence Stone (Princeton, 1974).

  2. 2

    University of Denver Quarterly, Spring 1977.

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