In which I am a real lexicographer

This post comes to you slightly delayed, since I’ve spent the past week being distracted by the vitally important tasks of eating Christmas cake and going to the British Library for a second go at their Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. However, I am now back behind the keyboard and ready to give an account of my recent activities.

A while ago, I was sent an email by the University of Glasgow’s “Internship Hub”. As the name probably suggests, the Internship Hub is an arm of the university’s careers service that focuses on finding internship placements for students. They email out information about a lot of opportunities in all kinds of different fields, but I was still rather surprised to see an advert for an editorial internship in the dictionaries department of HarperCollins.

HarperCollins is a slightly mind-bogglingly huge publishing company that, among other things, is very well-known for its dictionaries. (Indeed, a Collins dictionary was one of the “family” dictionaries when I was growing up. Whenever I wanted to look up a word, I used to enjoy pitting it against the slightly antiquated Concise Oxford Dictionary that was our other go-to, to see which had the better definition. In retrospect, this was probably a sign of things to come.) It has offices all over the place, but – by a happy coincidence – its dictionary publishing activities operate out of Bishopbriggs, less than an hour’s bike ride from my flat in the West End of Glasgow. They happened to be looking for an intern to help revise their thesaurus content. Predictably, I leapt at the opportunity, and, after completing an aptitude test and attending an interview, was slightly startled and tremendously excited to find that I’d got the job.


Pictured: My excitement at having my own desk at HarperCollins is in conflict with my innate fear of cameras.

In some ways, HarperCollins was a rather familiar environment for me; I do, after all, spend a lot of my time thinking about dictionaries. Still, when I have my PhD hat on, the dictionaries that I’m thinking about are mostly old (sometimes several hundred years old) and are designed to be read almost exclusively by mediaevalists. So it was an interesting change of scene, not only to be allowed to do lexicography rather than just talking about it, but also to work on something that’s closer to the average person’s experience of dictionaries (or, in this case, thesauruses).

The main task I was given to work on during my internship certainly wasn’t something I usually have to think about; I was asked to revise a batch of thesaurus entries for their presentation of gender, doing things like making sure spokeswomen and businesspeople were recorded as well as their male equivalents. To some of my readers this may sound like nitpicking, but users are conscious of these kinds of issue and want their reference works to address them appropriately. Furthermore, while some of the changes are simply mechanical (for instance, changing ‘give someone his marching orders’ to ‘give someone their marching orders’), others required a good deal of thought and research and (I hope) make the thesaurus more informative. For example, I can think that being a henchman should be an equal-opportunities job, but can I find evidence that people actually write about ‘henchwomen’ and ‘henchpersons’? In this case, yes, so it’s useful for thesaurus users to know this.

These kinds of issues in language use are very much in the public consciousness these days, so it was fascinating to be able to get involved myself (and to make my own small contribution in favour of singular ‘they’). And, of course, it was amazing to know that all the small improvements I made, even if it was just fixing a typo in an entry, would go into a real, published product, making it just that little bit clearer and more accurate.

I learned a lot of things as an intern. Some of them were practical: how to handle the Dictionary Production System software package, for example. (Yes, that’s really what it’s called. Yes, it is a very prosaic name for a tool used by a group of people who make their living dealing with words.) Some of them were more about improving my research skills: I spent many hours sifting through corpus data trying to work out what was relevant. Some had very little to do with the tasks I’d been given, but were a brilliant insight into the work of the office more generally: I got to hear about the difficulties involved in designing the layout of a visual dictionary, and got taken down to a trip to the company archives to see a lot of old books, a letter from Agatha Christie and (my personal favourite) some original Paddington Bear illustrations. (Sorry, no photographs allowed, or I would have shared them with you!) All of it was great fun and I’m very grateful to everyone in the office who was so welcoming to me, as well as to the Internship Hub at Glasgow for making it possible. I was sad to leave at the end of my placement, but – as will become clear in my next post – 2019 is bringing a whole host of other things to fill up my diary. Stay tuned!

Even more so than usual, this feels like the kind of post in which I should remind people that this is a personal blog, and that my ramblings are my own and don’t represent the official opinion of HarperCollins or anyone else. However, some of my edits will, I hope, soon be making their way to a thesaurus near you, either online ( or, at some point, in paperback. I wouldn’t especially recommend reading the whole thing in search of my changes, but if you do please don’t send me angry letters about how much you hated them!


Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms


Obligatory picture of the Codex Amiatinus, because it’s brilliant

I have been travelling once again, this time to the south of England where I had a delightful time at the wedding of an old friend and didn’t think about Old English, dictionaries, or anything thesis-related all weekend. However, this state of affairs could not last, and on Monday I took the opportunity of being in the approximate vicinity of London to visit the new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.

If you have any interest at all in such things you have almost certainly heard all about it already, but for anyone who hasn’t, I will get the essential points out of the way: this is a stunning exhibition and I urge you to do yourself a favour and see it as soon as possible. Maybe several times. (I am already hatching plans to drag family members along for a second visit.)

That said, what exactly was it like? As is usual with these things, photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition, so I can’t offer much of a visual illustration, although it’s possible to find images of most (if not all) of the manuscripts online. Manuscript digitisation is, of course, a wonderful thing, and one I rely on a lot for my own research,[1] but this exhibition has very little to do with studying the manuscripts. You go to meet them, in the same way that (to resort to a simile that a lot of people have doubtless already used) you go to meet a celebrity.

And goodness, they are celebrities. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every Anglo-Saxon manuscript I remember being mentioned in my undergraduate classes is there. The exhibition was busy, even on a Monday morning, and, while everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, the Anglo-Saxonists were easy to spot by the way they kept on rushing up to cases – elbowing innocent bystanders in their path – while exclaiming something along the lines of, “Look, it’s the St Augustine Gospels, actually there!” (Full disclosure: maybe not all the Anglo-Saxonists were doing this, but I certainly was. I wasn’t entirely alone, though.)

Everyone has been talking about the Codex Amiatinus, the gigantic Bible brought all the way from Florence especially for the exhibition, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. (I remember, on a visit to Florence several years ago, mooning around the library where it is usually kept. Even though it wasn’t on display, I just wanted to say I’d been there. The Laurentian library is worth a visit anyway, especially if you’re more interested in Michelangelo’s architecture than I was, but actually getting to see the Codex Amiatinus was much more exciting.) Actually being able to see its size for myself impressed on me what a statement it was not only to have it made, but to send it all the way from Northumbria to Rome.

However, at least as exciting to me was the chance to see, side by side in one case, the four manuscripts that between them contain the vast majority of surviving Old English poetry. The Vercelli book, another visitor from Italy, was open to The Dream of the Rood – an appropriate choice given that the same room also contained a replica of the Ruthwell cross, on which are engraved some verses that also appear in this poem, but also an excellent opportunity to declaim to one’s (thankfully very tolerant) fellow exhibition-goers some of the most sonorous lines in the Old English canon.[2] (I may not be at all religious, but the poem’s crescendo to the thunderous Crist wæs on rode gives me chills even so.) There were a few headphone stations scattered through the exhibit where you could hear someone reading (in the original and in translation) the texts on display, but to get the most out of the exhibition I would definitely recommend bringing along an edition of some well-known Old English texts and/or a friend who reads Old English and has a good eye for palaeography, because there’s something special about reading these manuscripts for yourself.

To fulfil my talking-about-dictionaries-etc. quota, I should mention that they also the Corpus Glossary, which inspired an excited monologue to my friend about AB-alphabetisation. I would have liked more acknowledgement of the fact that the majority of its glosses are Latin-Latin, rather than Latin-Old English – and maybe even a mention of how a later hand has gone through and underlined Old English glosses – but one can’t have everything, I suppose.

It felt as though everything in the exhibition was a “big name” to someone, but even the manuscripts I didn’t know so much about myself were fascinating to see in the flesh. The Paris Psalter had me going, “Huh, I had no idea it was that shape” (there are too many manuscripts that go by that name; this was Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 8824, which contains Latin psalms with a facing Old English translation, and is in a strikingly tall and narrow format), seeing the illustrations in medical manuscripts was a new one on me, and so on. There was also a pleasing range in terms of the genre of texts and the status of manuscripts (from deluxe to scribbly), and a proper sense of the Anglo-Saxon world’s connection with other cultures (again, I don’t want to over-egg the pseudo-profound parallels to the modern day, but it should be obvious why it’s a good thing not to paint a false picture of the Anglo-Saxons as a self-contained culture that never even spoke to people from other parts of the world, let alone learned from them…)

There was also a selection of not-manuscripts, presumably in case visitors started getting bored; runic inscriptions are always frustratingly hard to read, I find, but it was all interesting, nevertheless, and I had another moment of not having realised the scale of something when I saw the Fuller Brooch, which is almost comically large. (Since it’s usually in the British Museum, which I have visited several times before, I’m not sure why I have no memory of seeing it before this, but maybe in the British Museum I was too busy staring at something else. Similarly, I paid a lot more attention to the Sutton Hoo buckle – as featured on the cover of Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English! – than I’ve done before.)

I have very few complaints, the most significant being that the exhibition curators seem to have been curiously unconcerned about giving full shelfmarks for manuscripts borrowed from other libraries. (What if I want to look them up later? Half the time even the conventional name of the manuscript isn’t mentioned until halfway through the label on the case!) Then again, I will doubtless cave in to temptation sooner rather than later and buy the exhibition catalogue, which will probably remedy this problem (along with providing more detailed discussion than the labelling in the exhibition offers, but I am resigned to the fact that having a textbook-sized explanation with full footnotes next to each exhibit would be a little impractical).

As always with manuscript exhibitions, it seems a terrible shame (though entirely understandable, of course) that everything is in a glass case, treated as a static object; returning to the theme of manuscripts being meant to be read, one can’t help wishing to turn the pages. In this particular case, it was hard to feel too short-changed when there was just so much to see, though! Yet another reason to be grateful for the ready availability of editions, facsimiles and photographs, of course, but I’ll certainly return to them with a new enthusiasm having seen the originals in the flesh.

[1] I spend a fair amount of time listening to academics who speak reverently of ‘the materiality of the manuscript’, and I will happily concede that some aspects of reading a manuscript can’t be conveyed (and can even be misrepresented) by a digital image. Even so, I hope I never completely lose the sense of excitement I get from knowing that even a poor-quality image of a manuscript makes it potentially accessible to so many people who will never have a chance to handle the original. Manuscripts were made to be read, after all.

(I also wonder what the scholars I study – early Anglo-Saxonists of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – would have thought about digitisation. If their enthusiastic circulation of transcriptions is anything to go by, I expect a lot of them would have been thrilled – and rather worryingly unconcerned about the materiality of the manuscript. But that’s a pseudo-profound historical parallel for another day.)

[2] My other favourite Old English poem for declaiming dramatically, The Battle of Maldon, doesn’t make an appearance in the exhibition, as it only survives in Early Modern transcription, the manuscript having met a tragic end in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. (Thinking of that fire – and it was hard not to, partly because so many of the manuscripts in the exhibition bore the scars of their narrow escape from it, and partly because I spent a lot of my spare time feeling sad about it in any case – definitely made me hope that the British Library’s fire safety standards are better than those in Ashburnham House, where the Cotton manuscripts were kept. Then again, if nothing else the British Library has a much less inauspicious name in this respect.)

Leeds IMC: mediævalist party!

Continuing the narrative from my last post, this is a report of the other conference I went to this summer: the International Mediæval Congress at Leeds. Every year, mediævalists from more or less anywhere and everywhere that one can think of descend on the Leeds university campus for several days. To give a sense of the scale of the event, the conference programme (helpfully posted out to us well in advance) was the approximate size of a phone book. Unsurprisingly, I got lost several times trying to find my way from one paper session to another, and I spent quite a bit more time frozen in agonies of indecision because too many interesting papers were happening at the same time and I couldn’t choose.

The thematic focus for this year’s IMC was ‘memory’. Given the number of papers and the breadth of the topic, there was a lot of variety in how people approached this, even without counting the various general sessions that weren’t designed to address the theme after all. Trying to give a taster of that variety feels like doing an injustice to all the excellent papers I wouldn’t be able to include in the list, but there were a lot. Even though I mainly stayed in my customary academic stomping grounds of Old English, that still included people showing off some very clever coding projects, a comparison of the use of multiple writing systems in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and modern Japanese, and (possibly my favourite, for reasons of nostalgia) a keynote talk by my old undergraduate lecturer Dr Richard Dance, featuring not only etymology but also his signature slide of pop-cultural depictions of Grendel. (If you didn’t know that the monster from Beowulf was the subject of an animated musical… well, now you do.)

I was taking part in a session called ‘Literary Linguistic Approaches to Old English Texts’, which means (very approximately) taking linguistic theories and using them to understand what’s going on in works of literature. My paper strayed furthest from that theme, talking mainly about how modern teaching and criticism can influence how we think about literary style in Old English, but nobody threw rotten fruit at me and overall I think I can say that a good time was had all round.

Even the most dedicated academic can’t spend four days doing nothing but listening to papers, though, and so the conference did also have a social programme. This has its uses for networking, as well as simply running into people you haven’t seen for a while, although in my case, my shaky memory for names and faces did at times turn the whole event into a parade of ‘I’m sure I met you at a conference once but I have no idea when or where’. (Thank goodness for name badges.) There was also plenty of fun, though: a craft fair, historical re-enactors, concerts of mediæval music and so on, as well as a disco and a lot of evenings in the pub. (Anyone who knows me will be unsurprised to learn that I spent rather less time at those last two; I can’t help my chronic lack of coolness.)



See, it wasn’t all work! Some of the more photogenic parts of the IMC: music in the courtyard and pretty coloured wool at the craft fair.

All in all, an entertaining but exhausting week (which I will invoke as my excuse for taking another week to get round to writing this up). I have many notes to take, books to read and emails to send as a result – and, if I choose to go, it’s almost time to start thinking about topics for next year’s IMC. I’d certainly like to go back at some point, although rumour says that the US equivalent, held in Kalamazoo, is also worth a visit. It’s a busy life, it seems. Of course, to present a paper anywhere requires getting some research done, which is as good an excuse as any to sign off now and return to my books!

Glossaries and gelato

I am returning to this blog after an embarrassingly long absence with tales of not one but two conferences. Presenting at both in quick succession has involved a fair amount of juggling different academic hats and an exhausting amount of travel, but my train is speeding its way from Carlisle to Glasgow as I write this, and the end of the adventure is in sight. However, I will attempt to keep the story in a logical order, which means starting at the beginning with conference number one.

Said conference was the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, which, as the title of this post hints at, was being held in Italy. I was presenting an academic poster on identifying the most important dictionaries that I need to discuss in my PhD. (If anyone reading this is confused about why I would be discussing dictionaries, my previous blog post may be useful.) I may be almost a year into the thesis, but since I have so far been approaching my overview of historical dictionaries one case study at a time, there’s still plenty of room to fiddle around with what I’m including, and part of me was looking forward to the possibility that a notable academic would tell me that I’d missed something obvious. (Better to find out now than after submitting, after all!)


The conference venue. Sometimes the PhD life has its perks.

It was my first experience of making an academic poster – at least, my first since I was an undergraduate, when I attempted to convey the grammatical complexities of Nakh-Daghestanian languages in visual form. (The internship scheme for which I made that poster was fascinating, and I learned a great deal, but I also learned that an A1 piece of paper is not the ideal medium for explaining the finer points of syntax and morphology to an audience of non-linguists.) In comparison, historical dictionaries and glossaries seemed a rather less daunting topic, although I still managed to incorporate one tremendously complicated diagram of which I am rather proud.


The diagram. To summarise: it illustrates how a word from one 13th-century glossary (MS Harley 978, at the top of the page) made its way in various guises into various dictionaries. To summarise further: lexicographers tend to steal material from each other and it makes things complicated, hence the complicated diagram.

The poster session seemed to go down well with the other delegates, and I certainly enjoyed listening to everyone else’s papers. Historical lexicography and lexicology might sound like a rather restrictive topic for a conference, but there is room for a lot of variety under that umbrella, from versified dictionaries of Turkish to Norwegian language standardisation and from the language of Early Modern English religious debates to Anglo-Norman glosses. For most of the conference there were three sessions running in parallel, which meant that I missed a lot of papers I would have loved to hear.

All in all it was an excellent and very friendly conference, and I am very excited that, beginning in 2019, it will be held every year rather than every other year. What’s more, next year it will be held in Friesland, which may not be a holiday destination on the level of the Italian coast, but is linguistically very exciting, as the Frisian language is very closely related to English. More details will doubtless follow if I make it to next year’s conference, but I hope that I will have plenty of other things to report between now and then. At the very least I owe anyone reading this a write-up of my second conference trip of this summer, as alluded to above, so watch this space for further posts.

Three Minute Thesis

3MT slide

My thesis in one image (more or less). If you want to see the actual talk that goes with it, click here!

People put a lot of emphasis these days on the importance of public engagement in academia, and in general terms I wholeheartedly approve. The aim of research is to make a contribution to knowledge, and it’s hard to claim that you’ve done that if the only people you tell about your findings are a handful of people at a conference. Nor is it much good if your explanations come wrapped in so many layers of jargon and buzzwords that they seem designed to show off your own intellectual superiority rather than communicate anything to your reader.

All that said, I tend to be a little more uncertain when it comes to my own case. I may have a long-standing pet peeve when it comes to the kinds of teachers who would actively discourage their students from learning something on the grounds that it was too “boring” or “difficult”, but I am aware that most people can only stand so long listening to me enthuse about Old English dictionaries before their eyes start to glaze over. That applies even to the undergraduate students I am meant to be teaching; I struggle to believe that I would get a much more enthusiastic response if I were to stand in Glasgow city centre and proclaim the good news of historical lexicography to hapless passers-by. In any case, as I frequently find myself telling people who want to know why I became a mediaevalist, one of the great attractions for me in studying dead languages was that it minimised my chances of ever having to speak to another real live human being. (I joke, but not entirely.)

My decision to enter Glasgow’s Three Minute Thesis competition for the second year running must therefore be put down to my being a glutton for punishment. For anyone not familiar with the concept, this involves standing up in front of a mixed audience of PhD students and anyone else in the university curious enough to attend, and, with only a single PowerPoint slide for backup, explaining exactly what it is you research. All in no more than three minutes. This presentation is filmed and then posted on YouTube for the benefit of posterity.

Anyone who knows me will appreciate just how far this is from my idea of a relaxing afternoon, but I am pleased to say that I did in fact survive the experience, and will proudly be making a note of this in my PhD annual progress review, under the heading of “Engagement, Influence and Impact”. But did I actually learn anything from it about public engagement? Both no and yes, I think.

No in that, however big the audience felt when I had to stand up in front of it, I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that I was speaking to a handful of people, of whom most were PhD students and all were in academia. Of course, there’s a lot more room, even within universities, to get people sharing what they do with each other, but it would be nice, ultimately, to learn how to speak to people outside the walls of the university as well! What’s more, even for this small, university-based audience, I found myself putting a lot more effort into explaining the general context of my research than what I do specifically. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make me conscious of still needing to put some thought into the distinction between, on the one hand, making something accessible and, on the other, stripping out all of the particulars on the blithe assumption that they are “too difficult”. Of course, part of the challenge of the Three Minute Thesis competition is finding that balance within a three-minute time limit, and conciseness is definitely a skill I could stand to develop further!

Yes in that being able to speak to an audience really is a useful skill, both within and outside academia, and it’s one at which I, at least, need all the practice I can get. And, whatever my reservations about striking the right balance between simplicity and complexity in my presentation, I have to admit that boiling down half a year’s worth (so far) of notes and essays and convoluted musings on methodology into a single soundbite does help in getting a sight of the thesis-forest from the middle of the research-trees. That’s useful for me writing it, but it’s also a necessary step in explaining it to someone else; the first thing you need when giving an explanation is some idea of what, ultimately, it is that you’re trying to explain.

Whether I achieved any of that at all, I will have to leave to you to decide, but I hope that if you watch the video you come away with at least a vague idea of what my PhD actually is. If you are just as confused as before, you are welcome to leave a comment telling me so, or simply to sit back and laugh at me making silly faces where the whole internet can see!

Thoughts on teaching Chaucer


A rather gratuitous picture of the opening of the Canterbury Tales in the Hengwrt MS.

With a new year comes a new term, and with a new term comes new teaching. I still have the same History of English groups as last term, but from Old English (with a smattering of Old Norse just to keep them on their toes) we have moved on to Middle English – more specifically, to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

This required a little bit of revision on my part, since, while I had read the Pardoner’s Tale before, it was sufficiently long ago that I couldn’t even remember when or why I did so, let alone the details of the story itself. The basic narrative had stayed with me, but then it is rather memorable, containing as it does exciting amounts of stabbing, poisoning and general death, all tied up in a neat parcel of dramatic irony. Very cheerful stuff, which I won’t recap in any detail here.

However, going over the Pardoner’s Tale set me thinking about parallels in other areas of my studies – and no, I don’t mean that I am plotting the murder of any of my fellow PhD students. Rather, I was reflecting idly on how our curriculum’s leap from Old English into Middle English relates to my thesis topic. Put very briefly (and thereby conveniently minimising the risk of committing myself to something I won’t manage to follow through on), in my PhD thesis I am looking at that line between Old and Middle English, and at how academics and lexicographers have defined it and used it in different ways over time.

It should go without saying that the population of England didn’t wake up one morning in 1066 (or 1100, or 1150, or whenever else you might want to say that Middle English began) and say to themselves en masse, “This Old English is rather boring; why don’t we overhaul our case system and borrow some French vocabulary?” Language change isn’t that neat. But, going on what I’ve been teaching my seminar students, it might as well be.

Part of the issue here is that history is a lot bigger than we tend to think it is. Chaucer, who produced his works near the end of the 1300s, was certainly not the first Middle English writer. He is about as far removed in time from (say) the twelfth-century Ormulum (Middle English) as the Ormulum is from the Battle of Maldon (Old English). (Full disclosure here that I have not actually read the Ormulum, though it’s an important early Middle English text that I will have to tackle over the course of my thesis. However, I have been fond of the idea of it for years, partly because its author, Orm, came up with his own spelling system to use in it, and partly because of the charmingly logical reason he gives for its title: Þiss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum forrþi þatt Orrm itt wrohhte. ‘This book is named Ormulum because Orm made it.’) However, we have a limited amount of time, and it makes sense to hit the highlights. There’s a reason I haven’t yet read the Ormulum, and that is because – apart from its idiosyncratic spelling, if you are entertained by such things – it is infamously dull.

The jump to Middle English also brings with it a whole new set of expectations about how we study it. This is in part a matter of practicality; Chaucer’s language looks a lot more like modern English than the language of the Battle of Maldon does, and so it’s much more feasible to let students loose on large chunks of the former with very few preliminaries. But its also the case (not entirely, but I’m making generalisations here) that the two groups of texts are studied by rather different people with different interests. On the whole, for example, a lot more biographical criticism happens in Middle English studies than in Old English, and relatively less close scrutiny of manuscripts. (Though I must say that I have just been reading the chapter on the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript in Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, and now want to tell my students all about it. It’s a good read and I would recommend the book even to non-mediaevalists.)

Of course, all of this raises the question of how much Old English and Middle English studies look so different simply because the surviving texts for each period are themselves very different. Or maybe they are a little bit different and the rest is the result of a self-perpetuating circle in which students learn to approach texts in more or less the same ways that their teachers did. Arguing about that could fill several blog posts – indeed, could fill a whole book – before even getting onto the question of whether that means we ought to be teaching things differently. So, with an apology for stopping just as things get interesting, I conclude my ramble. None of this is new ground, of course, but if nothing else it’s a taster of the kinds of things I spend my weekends musing about, as well as a glimpse of (one aspect of) my thesis in the wild.

Reading other people’s letters

I should probably begin with the clarification that the ‘other people’ in question are long dead, which makes what I was doing valid historical research rather than wildly inappropriate behaviour. To explain further: last Friday I had the pleasure of attending a symposium on the subject of Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature. This meant that all the letters we were talking about shed some light on the history and personalities of Old English scholarship, ranging from the big names (Bosworth and his Anglo-Saxon dictionary, the ideas of the German linguist Hermann Paul) to less well-known figures.

Considering how ideas and research were transmitted between scholars is an important part of my PhD; though I focus primarily on dictionaries rather than private letters as the vehicle of this transmission, there was a lot to interest me here. The papers presented covered a wide variety of topics, from the nineteenth-century German scholars whose hunt for English documents in Continental libraries led to the first complete transcriptions of the Vercelli Book and the Épinal Glossary, to Hanseatic law documents in Russia, to the story of the development of a catalogue of mediaeval Dutch literature. It wasn’t all serious, though; one of the nice things about looking at correspondence is that you can get a real sense of the people behind the scholarship. Sometimes they aren’t especially nice people, though they can be very amusing with their insults; my favourite was probably the description of the Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, written by one of his disappointed rivals for the post: “he has occupied his chair twelve months, and appears to have been taking a doze during that time”. (This thanks to the excellent paper of Daniel Thomas, Oxford.) But they can also be charming, as when the scholar A.G. van Hamel, staying in the house of an Icelandic friend, politely but firmly declined the loan of a pair of skis on the basis that he was too old for extreme sports (Arend Quak, Amsterdam).


The symposium exhibition

A particular highlight of the day was the exhibition of materials from Leiden University Library, which included a letter from James Murray (of OED fame) enquiring about the etymology of the word ‘asparagus’. Another letter in the exhibition, received by Pieter Jakob Cosijn from the young scholar James Platt Jr, was, as Amos van Baalen and Jodie Mann explained in their paper, the beginning of a plagiarism scandal that led to Platt leaving Anglo-Saxon studies in disgrace. Not a letter, but very exciting to me nevertheless, was the Leiden University copy of William Somner’s Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum. This was owned by the Dutch scholar Jan van Vliet, who, I am pleased to say, annotated it carefully and extensively, making this one of the few copies I have seen with evidence of serious use.


Guest starring my favourite dictionary!

However, probably the most enjoyable aspect of the day was simply the chance to meet other people who, however different their research topics and methods were, had come together to find a common point of interest in the idea that the day-to-day lives of scholars, their unpublished and informal interactions, can be just as important to understanding how we come to know – or think we know – the things we do about an area of study. I found it particularly interesting that many delegates, like me, had not started off intending to look at correspondence, but had come across the material for their papers while researching some different project. It seems that, sooner or later, the research trail leads us back to snooping into people’s letters. Who knows, maybe in a few hundred years’ time, someone will bring up this blog post in a conference paper about scholarship of the early twenty-first century. (I rather hope not, though…)

In which I look at sheets of paper

People who know me well will be familiar with my knack for finding myself participating in entertaining but oddly specific activities without quite knowing how I got there. (The time I spent my holiday crewing a sailing ship has been brought up in this context, though it was hardly unintentional.) Anyway, these people are unlikely to be surprised that last week, I ended up enrolling last minute (and many thanks to the organisers who let me!) on a two-day intensive workshop here in Glasgow to learn all about paper. They may also make comments on the academic trajectory that has led me from reading fiction, to reading fragmentary early mediæval fiction, to reading dictionaries, to staring intently at blank pages, but I am not going to rise to the bait.

The course was held in the Glasgow University Library Special Collections, and so I ascended to the dizzying heights of the twelfth floor to learn all about using paper and watermarks as bibliographical evidence, under the expert guidance of Dr Neil Harris, who had come all the way from Udine in Italy to talk to us. Now, my academic background is as a linguist and Anglo-Saxonist, and out of this I developed an interest in the history of scholarship of Old English. I wrote my MPhil on the earliest (seventeenth-century) published dictionary of Old English, and for my PhD I am extending this to look at developments in the lexicography of Old English from then up to the present day. In following these new research interests, I have found myself in a period when paper, rather than parchment, was the most commonly-used writing support, whether for printed dictionaries (at least until the rise of web-based dictionaries in recent years!) or for the working notes and correspondence of early scholars of Old English.

The paper workshop was an excellent chance for me to find my feet in this new field; hands-on examination of old papers and watermarks helped me feel a lot more confident in knowing what features to look for on my next archive visit, how best to spot them (the usefulness of LED bike lights in providing a raking beam for examining the texture of paper was something I had not considered before) and how to describe them bibliographically. I’m sorry to say that I may not be able to put my new-found knowledge of Hollander beaters (machines for making paper pulp out of old rags) or twin moulds to such immediate use, but understanding the manufacturing processes like these that produced the different characteristics of the finished paper gave meaning to the tiny details of texture and design that I was struggling to identify. If nothing else, next time I pick up an early dictionary, I will have a much greater appreciation of the complex and laborious process behind its physical production as much as the scholarship that went into the text itself.


A gratuitous picture of a Hollander beater, because now I know what one is and because I like bizarre contraptions. I should have included my own photos of the paper mill I visited in Basel earlier this year, but my photos are all out of order at the moment. It was very exciting, though.

Onwards and upwards

Advance warning: this post may be a little less informative and a little more self-indulgent than usual. Still, I think I’ve earned it.

On Friday afternoon, I finally sent my MPhil thesis out into the world, or at least entrusted it to the care of the university’s postgraduate office. It’s strange to see a whole year of work compressed into sixty-odd sheets of A4 paper, and hard not to second-guess all the things that I could have done differently over the course of that year’s research, but it’s nevertheless satisfying to have finished it. Something that was a good tactic – though not one I can take credit for, since I adopted it thanks to my supervisor’s nudging – was getting into the habit of writing almost from the very beginning. For me, at least, the act of putting my thoughts into sentences, even rough ones, gives my work much more structure and solidity than even the most careful of notes. Keeping the writing-wheels turning more or less constantly also has the advantage of keeping me too busy for much of the worrying and nitpicking to which I am often prone; perhaps this is how I ended up, in addition to writing my thesis, presenting seven conference papers over the course of the MPhil!

I have promised not to get quite so conference-happy for the PhD, but I’m sure that I’ll find other ways to keep myself busy. In fact, I’ve already started on that, since last week was marked not only by my thesis hand-in, but by my first-ever delivery of an undergraduate seminar. This was an interesting experience for me, since I never really had anything similar when I was an undergraduate. Nevertheless, between my memories of EFL teaching and the comprehensive notes provided by the course convenor, I had a good time (and I hope the students did too). Predictably, everyone enjoyed the Holy Spirit duck on the Franks Casket.


The front panel of the Franks Casket, featuring the Magi visiting Mary and Jesus, accompanied by what I had to work quite hard to persuade my students was (probably) not a holy duck.

Anyway, there is no rest for the wicked; tomorrow is my first official PhD supervision! I will look forward to getting a better sense of what I’ll be spending the next three years on. Doubtless some of it will end up on here, and then I will be able to live up to my byline of being a PhD student.