52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 39: compile a dictionary

Thursday 31 July 2014
ms36925 Photograph by nephew_1
Photograph of William A. Craigie, ms36925

Sometimes you come across someone in the story of the University who just makes you stop and stare, whose erudition and achievements in enabling the work of others fills you with admiration and awe. Such a man is Sir William Alexander Craigie (1867-1957), lexicographer and philologist, surely one of the most eminent men to have studied and worked at St Andrews.

the ablest and most productive lexicographer of his time, universally recognised as the supreme master of the art and techniques of dictionary making.

BANNER Muniments miscellany B1_1
Alphabetical guide to the muniment collection

This week I have been following his model and creating a dictionary. Mine is a very rudimentary alphabetical guide to the muniment collection, or institutional archive; his was not only what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary, on which he worked from 1897, being responsible for N, Q, R, U, V, Si-Sq, W0-Wy, ie one fifth of main dictionary and one third of the 1933 supplement, but his own Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, as well as the historical Dictionary of American English (1936-44). Truly enormous achievements and the major legacy of a ‘tiny Scotsman’.

ms 36926 4 Craigie working with editors of the New English Dictionary
Craigie working with editors of the New English Dictionary

The DOST is now available online as one of the two key elements of the Dictionary of the Scots Language / Dictionar o the Scots Leid, where it has been combined with the Scottish National Dictionary. It contained information about Scots words in use from the 12th to the end of the 17th centuries and is an invaluable tool for the teaching of palaeography, being in daily use by anyone reading Scots documents. It is the book I would take to my desert island!

ms36817_1 WAC to Jessie, 1893 making a discovery about Bishop Gavin Douglas_1
Craigie to Jessie, 1893 making a discovery about Bishop Gavin Douglas, ms38817/1

Craigie was born in Dundee, son of a native Lowland Scots speaking gardener, and learned Gaelic from his family. Even as a schoolboy he showed remarkable linguistic abilities, being interested in phonetics and early Scots. He came to study at St Andrews in 1883 and graduated with both 1st class honours in Classics and 2nd class honours in Philosophy in 1889. Whilst an undergraduate, he was active in the Celtic Society, learned German at evening class and French by reading in the Dundee Public Library and, during his final session, worked in the University Library on older Scots manuscripts, publishing his discoveries about our copy of Wyntoun’s chronicle. He also began to learn the Scandinavian languages which became his specialism. From 1888 he attended Oxford’s Balliol as a Guthrie scholar before transferring to Oriel as a Bible Clerk, taking a double first in Mods and Greats in 1890 and 1892. During this period he was building his expertise in Icelandic and Danish, and after graduation spent time in Copenhagen to study the language. He returned to St Andrews in 1893 as Assistant to the Professor of Latin and continued to work with the Library’s holdings and to publish. So he produced, in 1896 alone, his Primer of Burns St A copy at sPR4338.C8, Scandinavian Folklore sGR205.C8 and, with Andrew Lang, The poems and songs of Robert Burns sPR4300.E96L2. He provided Lang with translations of Scandinavian fairy stories, which were incorporated into Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books. He was the one to teach Latin to local historian David Hay Fleming ‘in order to read the old charters and other documents. We used to sit together in the University Library copying old manuscripts the last year I was here’.

ms36834 WAC on work for Lang_1
Extract from letter by Craigie to Jessie describing his work for Lang, ms36834
ms36707 Letter from DHF asking for Craigie's help
Letter from David Hay Fleming asking for Craigie’s help, ms36707
ms36827 WAC starting at St Andrews_1
Letter from Craigie to Jessie after starting at St Andrews as the Assistant to the Professor of Latin, ms36827
Craigie Commonplace Book
Craigie’s Commonplace Book, ms36922

There are many references to Craigie throughout our collections including significant correspondence with Andrew Lang. However there are two boxes of Craigie papers, 1893-1912 (ms36707-36928), to which I turned to find inspiration for this historical how- to. There I found a notebook (begun whilst he was a student at St Andrews) in which he kept an alphabetical list of words and their definitions and their sources. He calls it a ‘commonplace book’, and it begins in 1883 when he was aged 16: ms36922. It contains entries made under each letter of the alphabet and covers Scottish history, lists of kings, Bible passages, various languages, alphabets and translations, including Gaelic, Hebrew, old English, Arabic, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, Scots, Slavonic. Here are some examples, showing the breadth of his linguistic skill and his style, showing even at such a young age the potential he was to fulfil. Mine is a mundane muniments miscellany in comparison, but I did use some original sources to get extracts for my dictionary.

common place examples merged
Commonplace Book examples E, G and W
RH using UYLY105_2 for C
RH using the library shelf catalogue UYLY105/2 for the C entries
merged P's
Craigie Commonplace Book P entries and Muniments miscellany P entries
Muniments miscellany B2
Muniments miscellany B
Muniments miscellany C
Muniments miscellany C
Muniments miscellany M
Muniments miscellany M
Muniments miscellany Y
Muniments miscellany Y
ms36847 9 letter to Jessie Oxford offer_1
Letter from Craigie to his fiancée Jessie, a few weeks before their wedding, ms38647

Letters Craigie wrote to Jessie Hutchen or Kinmond whilst he was in St Andrews, typically signing himself ‘very sincerely yours, W.A. Craigie’ even until the eve of their wedding in 1897, are found in his papers. They had to alter their honeymoon plans in order to move to Oxford instead of travelling to Copenhagen as planned, since Craigie took up the invitation from the Philological Society to join the editors of the New English Dictionary in summer 1897. His Professor in St Andrews rather grudgingly let him go. He worked with colleagues in Oxford until 1925, being appointed Taylorian lecturer in Scandinavian languages in 1904 and holding the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon from 1916 which was revived and the duties were extended so he could continue to lecture in Old Icelandic. He left in 1925 for the University of Chicago where he served as Professor of English and editor of the Dictionary of American English, being succeeded in his Oxford chair by one J.R.R. Tolkien. In 1936 Craigie resigned from Chicago and semi-retired to Oxfordshire, continuing to contribute to his American Dictionary which was complete in 1944. He worked on DOST from 1921, being interrupted in the middle of the 2nd volume by war, and completing to the end of ‘I’ by 1955.

ms36847 9 letter to Jessie_harmless drudge_1
Extract from letter recording reaction of Craigie’s professor to the news that he was leaving St Andrews to become a ‘harmless drudge’, ms38647
ms36925 Honours_1
Honours awarded to Craigie, ms36925

The accolades showered on Craigie are amazing. He had travelled widely with his wife throughout all of Northern Europe and round the world in 1921. In 1952 on his 85th birthday there was a gathering at Oriel, Oxford at which a portrait of Craigie by Harold Speed ARIBA was presented (see ODNB entry), and CS Lewis and Tolkien are listed among the subscribers to it. The account of the event (ms36925) on which the ODNB article is based, declares him to have been

one of the most widely known scholars of his generation and the quietly dignified, rather reserved, yet unfailingly kindly and companionable personality of this tiny Scotsman, with his modest tastes and tidy habits, and his fellow-feeling for simple folk and small nations, made him one of the best loved.

Grounded in his immense personal scholarship and knowledge of languages he had a genius for solving problems at sight; his equable nature, capacity for detachment, sense of proportion and enormous capacity for work on many project concurrently were notable; he edited the work of others, retaining his focus despite interruption, and was renowned as a welcoming and accessible teacher; he was a lucid lecturer demonstrating breadth of learning and relevance, yet free from pretence; with his retentive memory, sure judgment, an authoritative help in encouraging the work of others. Surely a role model for Special Collections staff working today to enable the research of others!


Further Craigie papers can be found at the National Library of Scotland (GB233/MS.9987 and GB233/Acc.9448).

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3 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 39: compile a dictionary"

  • Jay Dillon / Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts
    Jay Dillon / Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts
    Thursday 31 July 2014, 2.09pm

    Wonderful! but surely the title of Craigie’s magnum opus is _A dictionary of the older Scottish [not ‘Scots’] tongue_.

    • St Andrews Special Collections
      St Andrews Special Collections
      Friday 1 August 2014, 9.54am

      You are quite right. Thanks for spotting that!

  • Greta Michie: connections between Glenesk and St Andrews reinvigorated | Echoes from the Vault
    Friday 24 January 2020, 11.01am

    […] a small collection of poems, mainly by St Andrews graduate and lexicographer and philologist William A. Craigie. A couple of examples of his poems are St Andrews dated 17 April 1886 and Fair, fair an’ sweet is […]


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