Once upon a time, in the last great days of Queen Victoria’s illustrious reign, in a great smokey industrial city on the edge of England’s Black Country, there was born a little boy called Onions.
He came from a long line of bellows-makers, folks for whom hot air was the stuff of life: but his father had rebelled in his own quiet way and insisted on becoming an embosser of metal. His mother, to complete this strange parable of the post-industrial revolution, was the daughter of a locksmith.
Young Onions was a fastidious and hard-working child. He gained a place at the ancient and scholarly school in the city, founded by an old king centuries earlier, and could not help but be fascinated by the Headmaster’s wonderful collection of dictionaries. Parts of the New English Dictionary would arrive every so often: and Onions could often be seen poring over them with a fascination unusual in one so young.
In time, he grew older and went to study for a degree at the city’s university. Absorbed with words, he learnt to write Greek and contributed to works on English syntax.
It was a chance meeting with a visiting examiner from London which really changed Onion’s life forever.
The examiner was J.A.H. Murray: another story for another day, and the very first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He had requisitioned a tin shed in the grounds of an Oxford school, and called it a Scriptorium. He filled it with slaving lexicographers.
And he recruited young Onions onto his team.
Onions found that he was rather good at this. While he began under supervision, he was soon entrusted with Su – Sz all by himself. And then it snowballed. He took on wh-whorling; and finally completed X,Y and Z.
It was in this way that Onions became the man to write the last word in the whole Oxford English Dictionary: a cross reference. ‘Zyxt, obs. (Kentish) 2nd sing. ind. pres. of SEE v.’ He liked to tell people about it at dinner parties because the name was pounced on and used by a soap company and became famous as a result.
But it is not for this considerable achievement that I count him a part of his own fairy tale.
No: it was his love of etymology – the historical development of words – that led him straight to William Shakespeare’s door.
Onions loved Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare’s words: and he resolved to catalogue them all, in a glossary which would make them a freely available resource to people who, like him, loved words and their histories.
Sitting by my side is the book, written in 1911, in which he collected Shakespeare’s words in one place.
And oh, what a treasure trove Onions created.
A Shakespeare Glossary; by CT Onions. So simply named. Onions liked to keep it simple.
How to begin? Like a child in a sweetie shop, I can only grasp a greedy handful of words and brandish them in your direction.
Why write about conflict when you can describe oppugnancy? Or celebrate the first fruits of an endeavour when you can toast the firstlings? If you wear a wig you are periwig-pated, or if unfeeling you are iron-witted; and executioner is a deathsman, a female flax-worker a flax-wench, a pickpocket a cutpurse, a sweetheart a dowsabel.
Dip your toe into it and you must go further. It is a work to be read with a glass of something warming, all the better to glory extravagantly in the words we once had, and, like some Bohemian revolutionary, darkly plot their return.
Whilst his people specialised in hot air, the words collected by Onions could not have been of greater significance.
He knew his onions.
You can find an online edition of CT Onions’ glossary here
Thanks to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the life of Onions, and to the Oxford English Dictionary’s website for today’s image.