July 19, 2004 by

Robert Burchfield


Categories: Writers/Editors

rburchfield.jpgIf you’ve ever wondered how to spell or define a word, Robert William Burchfield was the ideal person to ask for help.
Burchfield had a passion for the constantly evolving nature of the English language. A pre-eminent lexicographer, he became the editor of the four-volume “Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary” in 1957. During his three decades in publishing, including 13 years as the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Burchfield spearheaded a campaign to expand the OED’s World English offerings to include terminology from Australia, the Caribbean, India, North America, Pakistan and South Africa. He even published words in Maori, the Oceanic language spoken by the Maori people of his native New Zealand.
Despite what may have appeared to be a rather tame desk job, Burchfield occasionally received death threats from folks who were offended by his decision to publish sexist slang and racial/ethnic colloquialisms. He even went to court to defend the OED’s right to define terms some people felt were derogatory.
Prior to his illustrious career as a linguistic scholar, Burchfield graduated from Wanganui Technical College and attended Victoria University College in Wellington. His academic career was interrupted by World War II; for five years, he fought with the Royal New Zealand Artillery. After the war ended, Burchfield completed his master’s degree and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied under C.T. Onions, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. A medieval scholar and author, Burchfield also penned “The Spoken Word,” a guide for broadcasters, and served as president of the English Association.
Burchfield, who was appointed a Commander of Order of the British Empire, died on July 5. Cause of death was not released. He was 81.

2 Responses to Robert Burchfield

  1. Margaret Percy

    It may seem strange that as a fairly long ago English Language graduate of Victoria University and as an errent academic, even one whose mother was married in Wanganui,I would never have heard of Robert Burchfield.
    A few months ago after moving to a job in London I picked up a set of 4 paperback books cheaply at Waterstones, ex Dillons. They looked useful, dictionary, thesaurus, and a couple of others.
    Last weekend I had nothing to read so fell upon one of these two books – The English Language.
    What a delight and discovery, such wildness of mind and minding. Almost dizzying iconoclasty to one who like me struggles with the closed system of “academic writing, academic presentation….”.
    A secret pleasure began in my heart – maybe, just maybe as an Emeritus Professor he might, just might be prepared to take me on as a pupil for the PhD I am about to lately start.
    Almost tenderly , heart in mouth this morning I searched on the internet.
    He is no longer here to state with perfect confidence – “One enduring myth about French loan words of the medieval period needs to be discounted.”(pg 18.op cit)in one stroke obliterating one of my favourite in-class stories!
    Or with perceptible physical weight – “Moreover, lying ready at hand was a set of powerful but insufficiently exploited prepostions.” (pg.14.op cit)
    “…..the theoretical outlook is gloomy”(pg.3)
    This is just to say
    sorry I missed you
    wish you
    left us
    someone who remembers the words
    and their ways
    the way
    you did
    Professor Burchfield.

  2. David Kenward

    I remember Mr Burchfield as a rather slimmer faced, elder gentleman, and at a time when I was a 17 year old general assistant in the Main Office of Clarendon Press.
    Bob Burchfield, as he was referred to in a strange lack of recognition of his status, presided over an unusual collection of intellectuals in 40 and 41 Walton Crescent, Oxford, and indeed I was surprised to find staff working at desks in the cramped hallways of one of those houses, and even one working in the basement at the foot of a ladder.
    Being the latest in a long time of Main Office office boys but the first, it seemed, to possess a driving licence, I occasionally drove Mr Burchfield (as I of course addressed him) around Oxford.
    Stan Parker, the local carpenter (and the grandson of F. Parker of F. Parker & Son) who was contracted to perform the OUP’s woodworking miracles and, necessarily, my education, instructed me that Mr Burchfield was the number one reason that OUP stayed in business; I accorded Mr Burchfield dutiful respect.
    Prior to my starting in the Main Office, and apparently under standing orders, Walton Crescent’s stationary orders customarily received less than 50% of their ordered quantity. I made it my mission to give them 100% in deference to my educator’s obvious intelligence upon this matter and Mr Burchfield’s real standing wihin the human race (I penalised the Audio Visual department wasters of St Giles in compensation), and I think my generosity went not unnoticed.
    I do remember the morning, shortly after Mr Burchfield’s wonderful dictionary had redefined the work ‘Jew’ to include a certain possible meanness of financial character, that a paperclip lodged high in an envelope caught the blade of the letter slicing machine, and three of us hit the floor in what we immediately presumed to be a letter bomb attack. There was, of course, none.
    How could anyone but admire Mr Burchfield for his obvious intelligence and enthusiasm, compassion and regard for his staff, and for his occasional dead-pan observations to a certain 17 year old whilst being driven in what was probably a far too energetic manner in the Oxford of yesteryear. And how ironic that such a man should have so few Google pages listing his name when he was so much, and did so much.
    If the office boy who occasionally drove Mr Burchfield can command half a dozen pages of Google links, then this man who had an intelligence far superior, and a reach via the OED of so much greater significance for communication, should be remembered and appreciated with so much more.

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