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 in which he sought, in a variety of ways, to preserve information which might otherwise be lost to future scholars or historians. These include  items such as ‘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’), a set of  ‘Antiquarian and Topographical Notes’ (which Clark based on his various quests in and around the parishes surrounding Oxford), a detailed ‘List of Members of Oxford University who took the degree of B.A. in 1626-9’, as well as a collection of terms pertaining to wheelwrights. Hundreds of his hard-backed notebooks – packed with neatly written comments, labelled drawings, or newspaper clippings with careful annotation – are all filed away, testimony to Clark’s wide-ranging engagement with the diversity and detail by which history is composed.

As in the Words in War-Time archive, Clark’s sense of historical narrative is, across his work, often determinedly moved away from ‘great deeds’ and ‘great men’  and towards the history of ordinary life.  He was particularly alert to the fragility of the historical record in these terms, and the knowledge that might all too easily disappear. Perceptions of this kind underpin  his determined collection of local words and expressions, of Essex school books, or his descriptions of agricultural machinery which was, as Clark rightly foresaw, about to be rendered obsolescent by new and motorised technologies. similar was his long-standing interest in the ephemeral, and the significance this might hold —  whether this was realised in modern advertising or, as for the Words in War-Time  Project, in 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 (and later Lincoln) College in Oxford where he gained a first-class degree in Classics. By 1880 he was a Fellow of Lincoln, 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 the 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 and, as described above, a committed interest in collecting together often forgotten information from college archives and libraries.  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.

While at Oxford, 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 volume, covering the words in A-Ant, was published in 1884, its second, covering words in Ant-Batten in 1885. Clark participated eagerly in the dictionary project from the 1880s; publically thanked in a number of the prefaces to various sections, he assiduously submitted words and evidence, whether from his general reading, his archival research, 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 illuminatingly be enacted in the present day, as much as in the past. On-going history 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 a close documentation of language in history. The onset of war in 1914 seemed similar – as he observed, language was conspicuously being renovated under the force of contemporary history. War, in this light, seemed 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  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, all too often 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, 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 (and the varied pressures of reviewers and readers, as well as of the Delegates of OUP with their own well-attested inclinations to canonical writers rather than the temporalities of news discourse). 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)).  A digitized version also exists, Clark’s ‘Words in War-Time’ series remains, nevertheless, a largely unexplored resource. It confirms, however, 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 [http://ezproxy.ouls.ox.ac.uk:2204/view/article/55619, accessed 4 Aug 2014]

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