Women and the dictionary, Part II: Authors

(Continued from ‘Women and the Dictionary, Part I: Assistants and Volunteers’.)

The inequality in women’s status discussed in Part I extended to the cultural value of women’s writing, too, and this had important consequences for the new dictionary. The OED broke new ground in English lexicography by basing its definitions on examples of the real use of words, quotations from the earliest writings in English (i.e. Old English) right through to the late nineteenth century, sent in by the voluntary readers as well as researched by the lexicographers.1 Nearly two million of these quotations were printed in the published volumes so that users could see the primary evidence themselves. Both lexicographers and volunteers, however, were far less interested in reading and recording words from texts written by women than by men, with the result that quotations from male authors outnumber those from female authors by a very large margin indeed.

For the early period, this disparity reflected the relative proportions of the source evidence: there were simply far fewer texts written by women available from which to extract dictionary quotations. But by the eighteenth century women had become well established as authors, notably of novels but also of poetry and of works of history, philosophy, letters, household books, and other genres. Certainly by the nineteenth century there were plenty of published works written by women that the lexicographers could have chosen to quote from if they had wanted to represent the population of English users in a more balanced way.

This didn’t happen, however. The relative proportions of linguistic evidence from men and from women—and the representation of women (as opposed to men) in the dictionary more generally—seems almost never to have been raised as a specific issue during Murray’s lifetime, nor indeed before the late twentieth century. One rare example occurs in a letter to Murray from his invaluable supporter and adviser Henry Hucks Gibbs (830503A):

Furnivall has a fancy that it is good to quote women, because the writings of Women are a characteristic of the Age.
But the Dicty is not mean to be a record of the progress of the Emancipation of Women but of the birth life and death of words; & that a word has or has not been written by a Woman doesn’t touch the matter. By the same reasoning no one need object to a word because a woman has written it, or invented it even, if it is not, as is sometimes the case, a monument of her ignorance.

On the one hand, Gibbs acknowledges that women have the same right to be quoted in the dictionary as men, but on the other, in defending this right, he immediately suggests they may likely forfeit it through their ‘ignorance’. Taking Mary Elizabeth Braddon (one of the most prolific and best-selling novelists of the time) as an example, he continues with the same mixture of praise and disparagement:

Miss Braddon sometimes, often, indeed, writes good, strong English. My objection to her as an authority, where better can be had, is that she is a hasty writer—grinds out novels by the yard, and does not give herself time to think whether she is writing good English or not.

In discussing women writers, Gibbs also refers to his own cousin, the highly regarded novelist Charlotte Yonge, who had been (like Gibbs himself) an early sub-editor for the dictionary (see 740423A and 770522B): ‘Many who do think have not the faculty of writing clear intelligible English. Witness my cousin Miss Yonge—popular as she is’.

Gibbs’ mention of ‘authority’ as a criterion is choosing quotations is an important key to the dictionary’s treatment of female-authored texts. Women, along with the published work they produced, were not seen as authoritative as men—a fact which remains demonstrably the case today, if not to the same extent as in the Victorian period. Their use of language could not therefore be regarded as exemplary as that of men, and therefore as eligible and deserving of quotation, even though the OED set out, in theory, to record usage objectively rather than to prescribe it.2

Even given this inequality in status, the bar for quotation in the dictionary turned out to be astonishingly high for women. The novelist George Eliot (whom Gibbs mentions more approvingly in the same letter) was the most cited female author, with just over 3,000 quotations, followed by fellow novelists Frances Burney (c. 2,000) and Mary Braddon (c. 1,500) and by journalist Harriet Martineau and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (both also c. 1,500). Even the much admired Jane Austen was only allotted c. 700 quotations, while Charlotte Yonge received around 650.3 Totals for other women dropped sharply away thereafter to the low hundreds and less (e.g. Mary Wollstonecraft at 80, Emily Brontë at 70).

By comparison, to take just nineteenth-century examples, Walter Scott was quoted around 15,000 times in the first edition of the dictionary, Tennyson and Dickens around 7,000-8,000, and the historians Carlyle c. 6,200 and Macaulay c. 5,200 quotations each. This looks like culturally motivated discrimination between users of English, in favour of men, rather than dispassionate representation of the available evidence. The striking imbalance in the lexicographers’ choice of male and female sources continues to afflict the OED nearly a hundred years later: many now unknown and unremembered men heavily quoted in Murray’s dictionary still dominate today’s entries, so that of the top 1,000 quotation sources now recorded in the OED, only 30 or so are women. This is a staggeringly low proportion (see further reading).

We have yet to come across any remarks by Murray indicating his views on the relative merit of male and female quotation sources, though we do know that the writing of George Eliot, who expressed her preference for being cited under her male pseudonym (791205A), had a special place in his heart. His granddaughter records, ‘He held all his life to the opinion that novel reading was a waste of time’, although once, Murray confessed, ‘“having nothing better to do, I wasted my time over the first story in George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life—perhaps not wasted for it touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes”’ (Murray 1977: 24). Eliot was one of the most famous writers to whom he wrote in search of the meaning of a word used in their work, and his graceful thanks to her for explaining her coinage of a-dust (791206A) reveal his admiration and respect for her work: ‘I am happy to have had, so to say, a peep at such a genius.’

Further reading

Brewer, Charlotte. (2012). ‘“Happy Copiousness”? OED’s Recording of Female Authors of the Eighteenth century’. Review of English Studies, 63(258), 86–117. Accessible at https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Brewer-2011.pdf.

Brewer, Charlotte. (2015). ‘“That Reliance on the Ordinary”: Jane Austen and the Oxford English Dictionary’. Review of English Studies, 66(276), 744–765. Accessible at https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Brewer_Austen_2015.pdf.

Brewer, Charlotte. (2022). ‘Fe/male Sources’. Examining the OED. Accessible at https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/quotations/outline/fe-male-sources/.

Fournier, Hannah S., and Russell, Delbert W. (1992). ‘A Study of Sex-Role Stereotyping in the Oxford English Dictionary 2E’. Computers and the Humanities, 26(1), 13–20.

Mugglestone, Lynda. (2013). ‘Acts of Representation: Writing the Woman Question in the Oxford English Dictionary’. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 34, 39–65.

3. Yonge’s total was later doubled in the second Supplement to the OED, very likely owing to the enthusiasms of a particular volunteer reader, Marghanita Laski, who was a founder member of the Charlotte Yonge Society (EOED). ‘The late Miss Harriet Martineau’ was credited in the dictionary for her help with words ‘connected to English History’, as was Yonge (Murray 1888: v).