The Wordsmith Who Knew His Onions


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.


60 thoughts on “The Wordsmith Who Knew His Onions

  1. Reminds of the Massachusetts Puritan minister John Eliot. From 1630 to 1640 he translated the language of the Narragansett Indians to English and then created their language into a written form. A dictionary and syntax was created. Then from 1640 to 1650 he hand wrote the entire Bible in the Narragansett language whereupon the General Assembly of Massachusetts Bay sent to England for a printing press and the Bibles were printed. He taught the Indians to read in their language and perhaps a few hundred were converted and even fewer were labelled “practising” Christians. In time the results of his efforts evaporated but I never cease to be amazed at this man’s scholarship and commitment to bring Jesus Christ to “ye aborininees”

    1. Thank you, Cindy. Apologies for the whole disappearing comment thing. I shall settle down to decide which words to feed into Twitter later on. It would be delicious to send Shakespeare’s words viral once again.

  2. What a fascinating post! Onions’ story, and the Shakespeare glossary. Thanks for the online link. In lieu of the actual book, this is going to have to do. But what a treasure.

  3. How refreshing to see an Onion spelt like an Onion. I know several, but they have all added an apostrophe as though they are afraid of having their layers peeled. Your Onion was obviously a man of many layers, thanks for revealing them. The book is a gem.

  4. Oh, I love this, new words to find a way to use. My Lovely Miss TK will henceforth be known to me as my dowsabel.

    And, you really caught my eye and funny bone with this one: “Whilst his people specialised in hot air, the words collected by Onions could not have been of greater significance.” ….snuck that in on us. 🙂

  5. I wish I had known about this book when I last performed Shakespeare. My fellow actor and I probably came up with some entertaining wrong interpretations of our lines. 🙂

  6. Ooh, very exciting find – would be very useful to have at hand when you come across some of those very colorful but unrecognized terms Shakespeare uses!

  7. This is just amazing, Kate. I love the story of of the man, and will spend much time with his glossary. Thank you so much for the link! I love to study words, too. As a young student I would deliberately intersperse my papers with words that came from the dictionaries and encyclopedias I was reading. I had more than one occasion to be called into the “disciplinary office” and accused of plagiarism because of the disbelief that I would know how to use particular words that were not a part of everyday vocabulary. It became my quest to use words to incite the opportunity to be questioned, and then, if I can recall, arrogantly provide evidence that I was indeed the original author. I think was a way for a really “good” child to rebel! Ha!

  8. I’m so excited about the glossary. I’ve heard the phrase “knows his onions” before (probably in an English movie). Does it really originate from the real Mr. Onions? That’s fascinating.

  9. You have one helluve a trove of Books Kate – I do hope that all the library cards are up to date 😉 The only Onions I know bowls currently for England 🙂 Fantastic stuff as usual 🙂

    1. Martin, I buy all my books second hand! I am a terror for running up library fines so I turned in my ticket decades ago. The bowler Onions is one of my son’s heroes!

  10. Oh, this is simply wonderful, Kate, from his interesting name of Onions, to his love of words. It is you I will blame when I’m up late, in the wee hours, checking out the online Onion glossary. Brilliant post!

  11. “Whilst his people specialised in hot air, the words collected by Onions could not have been of greater significance”. That’s one “Blooming -Onion”, Er, Understatement…
    ~Happy New Year~

  12. As I read this post I thought Onions was CT’s first name and reflected that maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin for naming their daughter Apple. Glad that that’s not the case and I can resume old habits. As for Onions, your post intrigued me so much I checked him out on Wikipedia. He lived to 91 and fathered ten offspring. I suppose the word ‘contraception’ eluded his vocabulary since he was editing the back of the dictionary. What he did with Shakespeare’s words is very cool. I have a friend that’s an actor and a playwright and I’ll share the link to the glossary with him. Thanks Kate!

  13. I really enjoyed your story, Kate. I’m fascinated by the origin of words. NPR once carried stories on words by John Ciardi (spelling ?). He died some time ago, but I would have given anything to have had CDs – cassettes, then – of Ciardi’s narratives. Absolutely delightful.

    When I was a teen, my folks turned me on to mystery stories by Agatha Christie, and Philo Vance by S.S. Van Dine. The latter is the one I had to use our two huge dictionaries on because the words were more sophisticated.

  14. I am in love with the notion of darkly plotting their return! Lately I’ve heard a great deal about which words ought to be abandoned. Slacks was one and I celebrate the loss but why not choose some to recover and place into mainstream use? In cohoots, the flax wench!

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