Andrew Clark: collecting words and history

Andrew Clark’s biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography rightly draws attention to Clark’s ‘phenomenal energy’.** Clark was an inveterate collector of information – the Bodleian Library in Oxford contains a rich and diverse array of his findings whether in terms of ‘An Oxford miscellany, 1914′ (which includes a description of Jesus College buttery-books, and letters of inquiry addressed from abroad in 1906 to the University’, or a set of  ‘Antiquarian and Topographical Notes’ (based on the parishes around Oxford), or a detailed ‘List of Members of Oxford University who took the degree of B.A. in 1626-9’, or a collection of terms pertaining to wheelwrights. Scores of his hard-backed notebooks – packed with neatly written comments, labelled drawings, or newspaper clippings with careful annotation – are all filed away within the library, testimony to Clark’s zeal in recording what he thought might easily be forgotten in later years – whether this might be in terms of dialect words, or Essex school books, or descriptions of agricultural machinery about to be rendered obsolescent by new technology, or the ephemerae of modern advertising — or, as for the Words in War-Time  Project, the language of a specific period, and a particular epoch in historical change.

Clark was born in Scotland in 1856, the fifth son of a farm-worker. From these relatively humble beginnings, Clarke would, by 1871, be at the University of St. Andrews and, by 1875, at Balliol College in Oxford, where he gained a first-class degree in Classics. By 1880 he was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and its chaplain by 1884. Ten years later, he was resident in Great Leighs in Essex, serving as rector in a parish which was in the gift of Lincoln College. He remained there for the rest of his life.

By the time Clark left Oxford for Essex, he was also an established scholar – with a strong record of historical and antiquarian publications, especially in the investigation of the kind of forgotten materials which often lurked in college and university archives.  Once in Essex, he transferred the same interests to rural life and to remote parish registers where obscurity had long reigned. Clark collected and catalogued, depositing his findings in the Bodleian for the benefit of future scholars. Clark had developed a strong interest too in the Oxford English Dictionary – and the ways in which ‘historical principles’ and the ‘historical method’ might be reflected in language, and the play of a nation’s vocabulary through time.

The OED was another vast project, in which individual contributions and processes of collection were vital. James Murray’s 1879 Appeal to the English Speaking and English-Reading Public, for example, had urged people of all ranks and spheres to participate in gathering material for a historical dictionary –and what was to be  a ‘lexicon totius Anglicitatis’. People from Britain, America, Australia, and ‘the colonies’ were invited to join in a collective project in recording the ways in which language and history intersect  in English texts from Middle English to the present day. The Dictionary’s first  first volume, covering the words in A-Ant, was published in 1884, its second, covering words in Ant-Batten in 1885. Clark participated eagerly from the 1880s; publically thanked in the Dictionary, he submitted words and evidence, whether from his reading, or from his editing of early volumes which he undertook for the Early English Text Society — another enterprise which had been initiated under the auspices of the Philological Society and with the OED in mind.

Clark’s work often shows a clear understanding of the way in which history and language can unite. Yet, as Clark came to realise, historical principles could also be enacted in the present day, as much as the past; on-going history language remained a force for change in ways which often rendered the dictionary out of date as it was published.  As Clark noted, the Boer war had, for instance, clearly brought other processes of history into play, which might have benefitted from systematic record and documentation of language and history alike. The onset of war in 1914 seemed similar – as he observed, language was conspicuously being renovated under the force of contemporary history. War seemed, in this light, to bring a paradoxical fertility to language and its use, demanding new modes of expression or adding new meanings and compounds to forms which were  already in use.

If Clark had acted as a critical reader of the OED in the late 1880s and 1890s, sending a stream of  comments and information into the Dictionary, by 1914 he had decided to act as a critical reader in a very different way. Even outside the contexts of war, he realised that the OED had come to contain significant absences which were not necessarily being remedied by the information he dutifully sent in. Clark decided  to seize the opportunity he felt he had missed in the Boer war, and to craft an individual lexicon, using the kind of popular sources – newspapers, ephemerae, advertising, in which on-going history was, to his mind, most manifest (and which were, through popular pressures for the canonical, often – to his mind — being excluded from the OED).  James Murray’s earlier axiom that newspapers were the most vital sources for language – that they show how the language changes – could, it seemed to Clark, get lost in the published text of the Dictionary. A private lexicon could, in this respect, restore the balance. This was, in fact, something which Clark had been exploring even before war began – notebooks from earlier in 1914 already show him matching news articles and evidence from the OED in ways which already reveal the ease with which language can escape the lexicographer.

As Clark realised, however, a series of notebooks  also brought striking freedom – he could choose and edit his material as he saw fit, he could use the sources he wanted, and track the coinages and neologisms of English without the  filter of the published Dictionary (in which such words – at least when deriving from popular sources — were often disregarded). As war began, Clark was, within a few weeks, at work in creating a remarkable history of historical change, located in the language of the present day, and in the exigencies of on-going development. He began, at the same time, a vast War Diary – documenting daily life in Great Leighs – which would fill some 90 volumes by December 1918. While a selection of the diaries have been published (see Echoes of the Great War: the diary of the Rev. Andrew Clark, ed. J. Munson (1985)), and a digitized version also exists, Clark’s Words in War-Time series remains an largely unexplored resource, which nevertheless reveals the enduring value of Clark’s decision to apply historical principles to the  vernacular reporting of war for the Home Front.

** G. H. Martin, ‘Clark, Andrew (1856–1922)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 4 Aug 2014]



Platoon: tracking lexical life beyond the Oxford English Dictionary

 ‘Whole platoons rushed to the rescue and emptied their magazines into them, and not a few were bayonetted’ ‘”Bravo !’, shouted my platoon commander as he watched the carnage through his field glasses’ Daily Express, 1914 1 Sept

Platoon was one of a number of words where, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, evidence and meaning already seemed to have moved beyond that which the Oxford English Dictionary supplied. Clark’s ‘Not in N.E.D.’ ** appears like a refrain through his early notebooks, set against words such as flag-wagging, an idiomatic locution which he found  in the Daily Express in August 1914. It meant,  Clark explained, ‘boasting of military and naval power of one’s country’, and was a word which was already seen as redolent of an excess of patriotic zeal. Terrace offered other problems. Declared obsolete in the OED, it seemed alive and well in the popular press.  Clark found it, for example,  in reading the pages of the Evening News on  8th September 1914,here in an article  describing French refugees in Britain:  ‘the refugees paces up and down, sat on the chairs and the deck seats, read French papers. The lawns were like the terrace of a fashionable French watering place in the height of the season’.  If terrace had been obsolete for the OED, it was perhaps re-introduced as a loanword, Clark hypothesised.

Platoon was similar. *‘N.E.D. says “obs”, but much in use in 1915’, Clark notes against the quotation from the Daily Express which appears at the top of this post.  OED entries typically offered a model of life-history or biography for each word. Platoon, the dictionary confirmed, had in this light begun to be used in English in the military senses in 1637, signifying A small body of foot-soldiers, detached from a larger body and operating as an organized unit’; it could also mean half a company, a squad, a tactical formation preserved in some armies for purposes of drill, etc.’.  Yet, while the life-history of platoon could, at least in other senses, be tracked in terms of its later use, its role in military diction was deemed to have come to an end in the mid-19th century. ‘it is Obsolete in the British army’, James Murray stated in his entry for the word, drawing on the apparently definitive information given by Stocqueler in his Military Encyclopaedia  of 1853. This was reproduced in the dictionary entry: ‘Platoon, a subdivision or small body of infantry. The word is obsolete, except in the term ‘manual and platoon exercise’’. Later evidence which Murray included in OED1 was, accordingly, both historical and linked to American rather than British use.

Written in 1907, platoon had  in fact formed a relatively recent entry within the still-evolving OED. Clark, just seven  years later, would, however, start  to document a very different history.  Platoon, as the evidence he assembled in his notebook lexicon proved,  had not died but instead, as the popular press attested,  it was indeed  ‘much in use’.  It was moreover used as noun and as adjective, as Clark’s evidence on platoon commander from the Daily Express in September 1914 had also indicated. Rendered alive in the evidence he had before him, yet dead in a national dictionary written on historical principles, the word, and its apparent anomalies, would clearly remain on Clark’s mind.

The OED, as in many other instances which Clark would go on to document during the war years, would in this respect by no means get the last word. One day in 1915 Clark found himself in conversation in Great Leighs with Major Joseph Caldwell, who had served with the London Scottish. Clark took the opportunity to elicit additional information on platoon  As Clark therefore records in a postscript which appears at the end of his first notebook, his quest was successful — enabling  him to fill in at least some of the gaps in the ‘biography’ of platoon. As Major Caldwell confirmed, as far as he could remember it had ‘dropped out of use about the end of Wellington’s campaigns’, but ‘reintroduced in the official orders for drill in 1914’.

In the later 1920s Clark’s material was passed to the OED. While little use was made of it as a whole, platoon was one of the criticisms the dictionary took on board as it prepared a corrected Supplement  for the first edition (which had finally been completed in 1928).  In the 1933 Supplement for the OED, the entry is revised. Platoon is no longer obsolete but, as we are now told,  it was in fact ‘recently revived in the British Army for a unit of infantry forming a fourth part of company and subdivided into four sections of about eight men each’.  Clark, Caldwell, — and the evidence of the Daily Express which prompted Clark’s observations — together with the later editors of the 1933 Supplement who read Clark’s work after his death, would in such ways all combine to produce a corrected version which remains the basis of the modern entry, and platoon’s on-going history as part of military diction. As the Supplement confirmed, Caldwell’s intuition about the change had indeed proved  correct, though the dictionary also managed to find an earlier  citation which located the shift in 1913 (1913   Army Order 323 16 Sept. §4   A company will be divided into four platoons, each commanded by a subaltern…Each platoon will be sub-divided under regulations to be issued later’). Stocqueler’s evidence has in the meantime disappeared as the entry was recently revised in full,  in June 2006, for OED Online (the on-going third edition of the OED).

Those interested in the language of the First World War –and the period in which platoon, as Clark confirms, rose to prominence in early twentieth-century use — might nevertheless find it surprising that the revised evidence in the OED moves from 1913 (and the quotation which is given above), to another  quotation from 1945

H. P. Samwell Infantry Officer with Eighth Army iv. 33   We had agreed that he should bring up Company H.Q. and the reserve platoon behind, while I led the forward platoons

The diction of the war years themselves is silenced, along with the popular sources Clark documents. Likewise, for platoon commander, it is the canonical Wilfrid Owen who is used as the basis of the OED evidence for this period

1917, W. Owen Let. 23 Nov. (1967) 509   Interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s

rather than Clark’s citation form the Daily Express some three years earlier. Clark’s evidence remains in the notebooks, along with his careful tracking of language on the move as witnessed in the reportage of the popular press.

[“platoon, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 4 August 2014].

** NED = New English Dictionary, the original title used for the OED in its 1st edition (1884-1928).