Sir William Alexander Craigie, lexicographer, was born on the 13th of August, 1867.
One thing you cannae say about Sir William Craigie is, “He was a man of few words.” In fact, he was a man of many words; easily hundreds of thousands of words; more likely millions of words. In his day, Sir William was regarded as the foremost – nay, the most eminent – lexicographer, but he was also described as a language and literature scholar, and a philologist. Cragie first came to prominence in 1897, after he was engaged to work on what was then called the ‘New English Dictionary’ and which is now commonly referred to as the ‘Oxford Dictionary’ or the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’. He then went on to become its third editor, a position that he held from 1901 until 1933, when he co-edited the 1933 supplement with Charles Talbot Onions.
The Oxford English Dictionary is everywhere regarded as the world’s supreme achievement in lexicography and Craige played a significant part in that outstanding work of scholarship. Interesting that it took a Scotsman from Dundee to put the English language into a decent semblance of order, following on the earlier efforts of guys like Herbert Coleridge and Frederick James Fernivall. Not content with teaching the English a thing or two about their own language, Cragie also went to the United States to become chief editor of ‘A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles’. That tome was initially published piecemeal from 1936 and ultimately as a four volume set between 1938 and 1944, when it was finally completed. Cragie must’ve taken a great deal of satisfaction from that achievement as he had first proposed the thing as far back as 1923. In praise of Cragie, Henry Louis Mencken, the famous destroyer of convention, whose book ‘The American Language’ was first published in 1919, wrote in a later edition that his own book was “but a temporary signpost, serving its turn until the completion of such monuments-in-progress as Sir William Craigie’s.”
During his career as a man of words, Craigie edited loads of other dictionaries, the Temple Classics edition of ‘Burns’ and wrote monographs (detailed scholarly pieces of essay or book length on a specific subject) and textbooks on the English language. Craigie also wrote a large number of papers for the Society of Pure English, founded by Robert Bridges, including several on the evolution of English spelling. In addition to his grasp of what Anthony Burgess called the ‘Anguish Languish’, Cragie was the author of many other works that became definitive texts on the philology and literature of Scotland and Scandinavia. If you’re interested in things like ‘ologies’ and ‘uistics’ and ‘ographies’, philology is the study of language from written historical sources, lexicography is the art or craft of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries, and linguistics is the scientific study of human language.
William Alexander Craigie was born in Dundee on the 13th of August, 1867. Oor Wullie was educated at the University of St. Andrews from where he graduated and went on to study Scandinavian languages, for a winter season, in Copenhagen, the centre of Norse philology. In 1893, Cragie began his academic career by becoming a lecturer at St. Andrews, where he taught for four years before moving on to Oxford. In 1897, in the ‘City of the dreaming spires’ and, quite appropriately, of the oldest university in the English speaking world, Cragie joined the staff of the Oxford dictionary. Later on, in 1905, he became a lecturer at the University of Oxford and later still, from 1916 to 1925, Craigie was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University. When he went to the United States to work on the ‘Dictionary of American English’, Cragie also lectured on lexicography at the University of Chicago, where he taught many 20th Century American lexicographers of note.
Despite spending time in Copenhagen, Craigie became fluent in Icelandic and an expert in the field of ríma, which is a form of epic poem, consisting of two to four lines per stanza and written in any one of around four hundred and fifty different variations of rhyming, alliterative meter. Craigie became friends with many of the great Norse philologists of the time and made many valuable contributions in the scholarly study of epic Icelandic poetry and the rímur cycles. One in particular caught the attention of the itinerant Scot; called Skotlands rímur, it dealt with the infamous conspiracy of August, 1600 involving Scotland’s King James VI (James VI & I to be). In the introduction to his 1908 translation, ‘Skotlands rímur: Icelandic ballads on the Gowrie conspiracy’, published at the Clarendon press in 1908, Cragie wrote, “On examining the set of poems to which this name had been given, I was interested to discover that their subject was no other than the story of the Gowrie conspiracy.” Interestingly, amongst the names of the original Icelandic authors of Skotlands rímur stands the name of James I, described as King of England.
Craigie had another passion, which was, not unsurprisingly, the Scots language. He saw the old language of his native country as needing its own reference tome and, as early as 1919, he proposed ‘A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue’. Craigie wasn’t able to begin work on his Scots dictionary in 1919, but later on, from 1921, he began to make significant inroads towards producing ‘A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue; From the Twelfth Century to the End of the Seventeenth’. Despite continued research into the Scots language, from a first publication in 1931 up until the end of his life, Craigie never managed to complete that work, however, the project he pioneered has been completed. Since 2004, thanks to the charitable organization, Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd., twelve volumes are available, free to search, via the Internet here: http://www.dsl.ac.uk/ .
Cragie’s brainchild is now known as ‘DOST’ and covers the language from the era of ‘pre-literary’ Scots, when there was a very meagre, extant literary output (literally nothing more than Barbour’s ‘Brus’ and the ‘Legends of the Saints’), through that of ‘early’ Scots (1375 to 1450), to ‘middle’ Scots (up to 1700). The dictionary was intended to present the entire Older Scottish vocabulary as it was preserved in literary, documentary and other records. In a 1937 preface to the earliest volumes, Cragie wrote that “it may not be superfluous to mention that in undertaking and carrying out this work I have had the advantage of a familiar knowledge of the Scottish tongue from my earliest years, and an interest in its older literature from the age of twelve.” Sir William Alexander Craigie died at the age of ninety years and one month, in Watlington, in Oxfordshire, on the 2nd of September, 1957.