Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
Number 25, 2004
pp. 65-76 | 10.1353/dic.2004.0005
Intelligent Elasticity: The Early Years of the Oxford Dictionary ofQuotations Elizabeth Knowles ?:enneth Sisam was intimately involved in planning the ^venerable Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (ODQ), first as Assistant Secretary to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press (OUP) in the 1930s and, between 1942 and 1948, as Secretary. Agreement on the best method by which to compile the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was reached after considerable debate at the press. Sisam identified the essential editorial quality of such a work: he called it "intelligent elasticity." Through the debate his view prevailed and led the ODQ to success, expressed today, not only in ODQ itself, but also in later Oxford quotations dictionaries (most recently, Knowles 2002, Ratcliffe 2002, and Kemp 2003). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was first published in 1941, two years after the outbreak of the Second World War. This may seem sufficiently remote from the present day, but, in fact, ODQ was originally conceived during the First War. In 1915, R. M. Leonard, one of the London editors, wrote to Humphrey Milford, Publisher from 1913 to 1945, in charge of the London Office of the OUP and what we would now call the "trade" (as distinct from the "academic") side of the press: "What do you think of an Oxford Dictionary of Poetry Quotations (not foreign quotations), based on Oxford texts and the Dictionaries:Journal oftheDictionary Society ofNorth America 25 (2004) 66Elizabeth Knowles N. E. D.?"1 In die same letter, Leonard described his recommended model as "a Yankee production six times as useful as any of the English books arranged under authors' names." Evidently, this was the Cyclopaedia ofPractical Quotations, English and Latin, byJ. K. Hoyt and A. L. Ward (Third edition, 1883). He provided details of the excellences of diis work, and evidently loaned a copy to Milford, as one can deduce from a paragraph in Milford's letter of 26July that year: "The index in this loathly Hoyt — returned herewith witfi tfianks — is of course absolutely useless, not being alphabetical."2 He was, however, impressed enough to ask if Leonard could provide a "shortish" specimen, altfiough , if Leonard did so, it has not come down to us. The next item in the ODQ file is a letter dated 10 November 1931 from R. W. Chapman, Secretary to the Delegates from 1920 to 1945. He asks if die unidentified recipient could "find a serious highbrow to collect [material for a quotations dictionary] systematically," adding optimistically that "£50 shd buy a heap of quotations."3 Chapman went on to give an assessment ofwhat was wanted from such a dictionary which significantly extends the original vision of 1915: "What one wants is to look for things off the beaten track of Bartlett etc., particularly (1) the really familiar things in other languages like Non tali auxilio [a tag from the Aenmdwhich in full means 'Neidier die hour requires such help, nor diose defenders'], (2) modern quotations that have not yet got into the books." It seems likely diat the recipient of this suggestion was Kennedi Sisam, since three days later, Chapman told Humphrey Milford, "I have interested — I had almost said enthused — Sisam." As a direct result , Sisam had asked for a memorandum on the qualities and effects of the current edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and, indeed, any 'R. M. Leonard to Humphrey Milford, July 1915, in the OUP Archives (OPl 167/008658). All other documentary quotations here can be found in the same file and are reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press. 2This was, in fact, unfair: Milford had presumably disliked it so much that he had not been able to assess it correctly. He evidently thought that the index should have been of first lines, rather than keywords. 9It is worth noting how senior the people involved in the project's early stages were. Looking at the files, I am drawn to the conclusion that the quotations dictionary suggestion was, in the 1930s, a diverting new toy for the press's leaders , as well as a business proposition. Intalligant Elasticity67 other current collections. He raised the question of how to deal with major sources such...