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Saturday 9 March 2024

Review: Peter Ackroyd The English Soul Faith of a Nation



Reading this book was like working through a cut and paste job. Peter Ackroyd acknowledges the help of two research assistants (Thomas Wright and Murrough O’Brien) and I guess they provided the cuts pasted into the potted Wikipedia-style biographies of divines and theologians which comprise the bulk of the book. Those biographies record births, marriages and death-bed scenes – in that order - though in contrast to Wikipedia nothing is footnoted. As far as I can tell, not a single new fact is reported; everything derives from secondary sources of which some are listed as Further Reading. It’s rather dull and there’s no humour at all – perhaps to reflect the fact that Jesus never laughed (the internet has long since gone viral on the subject). Occasionally, the book is coy: was John Wesley a philanderer or not? The book suggests it but doesn’t provide a clear answer. 

I found myself contrasting Ackroyd’s book with two recent works which are thoroughly researched and lively and which light up English religious cultures: Anna Keay’s study of Cromwellian England, The Restless Republic (2022) and Daisy Hays’ Dinner with Jospeh Johnson which treats of late eighteenth century radical and sceptical cultures in which William Blake figures (he gets a chapter in Ackroyd’s book).

Some discursive and slightly better essays appear later in the book but the last chapter reverts to mini-biography, presenting CVs for three twentieth century academic theologians with no attempt to discriminate. John Hick’s important Evil and the God of Love is not elevated above lesser works and there is no recognition of its core concern with solving the intractable theodicy problem: Since there is unmerited suffering in the world then either God is not all good or not all powerful.  Solve that one if you can. I am surprised that no editor was to hand to veto the inclusion of this worse-than-weak last chapter.

From time to time the biographies are interrupted or concluded by strange one-liners about “the English soul”. I quote a selection:

On Julian of Norwich: “The English soul was mediated through homely images.” (page 31)

On Thomas More: “The fight for the English soul had become earnest.” (70)

And again, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (73)

On Henry Barrow: “But his witness survived, and became a significant aspect of the English soul.” (107)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

As a response to Samuel Butler: “it is certainly true that the established religion rested on what was comfortable and what was familiar. That has always been the default position of the English soul.” (261)

And so it continues. Wrap up all your expositions with the same phrase and it reveals itself as either trite or vacuous. Ackroyd nowhere tries to place the notion of soul in relation to, say, heart or spirit. There are those who are kind-hearted and those who are mean-spirited; we use such terms to describe characters and make moral assessments.  Is a soul in contrast something which can only be evaluated from a theological standpoint as saved or damned? But then it would be rather odd to have a theology which had a category of English soul as if there might be French ones or Russian ones or Japanese ones requiring  separate theologies. And would those theologies acknowledge that there is more than one path to salvation? It hasn't really been part of the spirit of theologies to allow that.

Regardless of who is responsible for what, this miscellany is in no sense an enlightening history of Christianity in England or a successful evocation of the varied ways it has infused the experience of some generic English soul. To have achieved anything approaching such lofty ambitions would have required some informing sense of history and structure. Should one be thinking of a Great Tradition (Leavis-style) of lives and works or of a Simultaneous Order (T S Eliot-style) of cultural monuments?

Or should one be looking for the reflection of social changes in the way Christianity has been expressed and lived (in the style of R H Tawney, Christopher Hill and the Hammonds)? The English soul would then take different forms in different contexts:  changing configurations and strategies of state power; the distribution of literacy and access to knowledge; and, most obviously, the changing ways in which the worlds of the rich and the poor have been conjoined (“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate” – second verse, All Things Bright and Beautiful).


Peter Ackroyd was a scholarship boy who studied at Clare College, Cambridge re-endowed (as Clare Hall) in the fourteenth century by Lady Elizabeth de Clare. Part of her endowment comprised land and the church benefice in the nearby village of Litlington. Fellows of Clare regularly took the church living and then employed a curate to do the actual work, making the usual profit on the deal. But the Rev Dr William Webb, Master of Clare from 1815 to 1856 and vicar of Litlington from 1816 to 1856 actually lived much of the time in its rectory and indeed died there. This apparent devotion to clerical duty allowed him to pursue a lifelong passion for agricultural improvement; he brought Enclosure to Litlington in 1830. The consequences followed as they did everywhere. My Pateman ancestors, for centuries Litlington agricultural labourers, were scattered – some as far away as Australia by transportation or assisted passage. Some remained but suffered again from the mid-Victorian agricultural depression. Despite that depression, promptly after his death Dr Webb’s executors auctioned his crops growing at Litlington  for £405. 

Webb's  successor the Reverend Joseph Power (vicar from 1856 to 1866) may or may not have known much about his parish. His interests lay elsewhere; he was University Librarian and also looked after the wine cellar at Clare ( the records are archived); as a mathematician he had successfully explained the mechanical cause of one of the first fatal train accidents in England. But in August 1864 he was able to sell the barley growing on his  four Litlington acres for £23. The year is significant for my history.

In December 1863 my great great grandfather James Pateman stole a bushel of beans from his master, a local landowner, because his pregnant wife Susan was ill and their family hungry; he paid the price with 14 days hard labour in January 1864. A daughter, a little Emily, was born at the beginning of February but died before the month was out after a private baptism at home – anyone could perform such an act but it was probably done by a local dissenter; the Patemans had married in an independent Meeting House in nearby Royston, a centre of lively dissent from the time of the Civil War. In the 1870s after the early death of Susan who had no more children, her teenage son John - my great grandfather – became another of those who left the stricken village; he made his way to Brick Lane in London’s East End and found work in the giant Truman Hanbury and Buxton brewery which offered effective competition to the other opium of the people. By this time it’s probable that the Patemans were no longer dissenters but simply godless, which is how I experienced my Pateman grandparents. But none of them transmitted orally or left anything in writing to reveal how they experienced their lives;  they can only appear to me as if bereav'd of light. As the Hammonds put it in The Village Labourer, “this lost world has no Member of Parliament, no press, it does not make literature or write history; no diary or memoirs have kept alive for us the thoughts and cares of the passing day” Their take on the English soul has to be guessed at.



After a  prefatory warning  that you will find nothing here about Judaism or Islam or … but don’t be offended etc…. Ackroyd’s book starts with Bede when I would have expected Augustine, sent to re-christianise an island abandoned by the Romans and Rome. Arriving at the head of a large expedition funded by Pope Gregory and heading straight to the Canterbury capital of the local secular power, Augustine’s first task was to get Aethelberht on side and that he achieved. He got the protection and resources in cash and kind without which no religious mission can put down roots, outspend and defeat competitors   Aethelberht had his reward in this world: renewed church power and old state power were going to march arm in arm and have done so ever since. But I guess Augustine doesn’t make the cut because he wasn’t English and, to boot, the agent of a foreign power. (And, yes I agree, that’s an old English trope).

As for lived experience which touches the soul there is in Ackroyd’s book precious little about country churchyards, church bells tolling for thee or me, organs belting out the tunes which all the faithful come to sing. There is surprisingly little about parsons, benefices, tithes, the Victorian clerical novel, Sunday and National schools, Nativity plays (were you Mary or a donkey?), the cost of keeping up bishops’ palaces, cloister intrigues, schoolboys beaten, choristers interfered with. Nor is it pressed upon us that the lives of our ancestors since Augustine arrived have, for the very most part, been nasty, brutish and very short, Christ or no risen Christ. We too easily forget both infant mortality and how that experience affected husband, wife and siblings. It is not surprising that we encounter so much evidence of melancholia in those who did record their lives. The money spent on understanding the perils of childbirth and on laying-in wards was a minute fraction of that spent on steeples and spires. 

Ackroyd sketches the outer lives and inner struggles of his cast of mostly male characters. Some of the choices are obvious ones, some less so. A chapter on three Atheists (Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Richard Dawkins) included, as it were, to represent the Other Side, simply ignores such details as the distinctness of not believing in the existence of a God or any gods and not believing in any kind of personal immortality (which I suppose knocks out one version of the Soul, English or not). It does not treat secularism as a distinct belief cluster which could be adhered to by theists and quite often is outside of a Church of England which still clings fiercely to the secular privileges without which it would now die.  Ackroyd is silent on agnosticism as distinct from indifference. He does not allow for those who rather awkwardly feel that some form of unbelief is a moral obligation imposed by the record of terrible crimes committed – and across millenia - in the names of organised monotheisms. It’s for much the same reason that many have felt obliged to renounce the more recent ideals of Communism.


I do share the hope that everyone who lives long enough will come to feel that there is some Quest or other that they must undertake before it is too late. Some discover very young, some never. The English soul? This is Rudyard Kipling in Kim:

“…we must find that River; it is so verree valuable to us”

“But this is gross blasphemy!” cried the Church of England.





Wednesday 21 February 2024

Harriette Wilson to John Adolphus 1825

These images show the extortion letter which I write about in the Times Literary Supplement 23 February 2024 under the title "Sly Intrigues". I have provided a transcription below the images.

Transcription, underlining in the original


Paris                No 91 Grande Rue de Chaillot Champs Elysées


Your Family are very low better not have them shewn up to ridicule in Harriette Wilson’s memoirs with your neices [sic] affecting love letters to the handsome young man she seduced and then applied to him for means to destroy the infant in her bosom useless to deny this or cry “fie” for I have the letters in my possession – as well be quiet and oblige a lady you are growing rich  I have spent all my money in furnishing my home and paying my debts will you do an act of Gallantry and send me 100 £? If you do I shall not be ungrateful – or you may publish this letter like Edward Ellice but verily  friend Adolphus we are none of us perfect have all our little sly intrigues either in the neighbourhood of the new Road or elsewhere and I might say to you in the words of Don Quixote to Sancho – “verily friend Sancho the more thou  stireth it the more it will stink ---- once more will you be my favourite and a noble man[?] of Gallantry – if so forward me 100 £ trust to my gratitude – Brougham I am sure would say you might do so safely,, - & sign yourself The Dauphin for fun – but you must be quick about it Yours truly [?]-  because you are witty  Henriette Rochfort

Saturday 20 January 2024



This recently discovered letter is not included in the volume Letters from Lambeth, edited by Joanna Richardson and published for the Royal Society of Literature in 1981.and which includes twenty-two letters from Charlotte Reynolds (1761-1848) to  John Dovaston (1782 - 1854)  It predates by three months the letters published in that book. 

In  rhyming couplets over two sides the writer appears to thank John [Freeman Milward] Dovaston both for the gift of a poem and of a live goose which is going to be eaten. There was indeed a poem which Dovaston published in 1811 with the title, “TO MRS. REYNOLDS, OF LAMBETH, with a Goose.” It can be found online.



Charlotte Reynolds to John Dovaston Esqr Junr Jan/y 13th 1808


To yourself my good friend, as well as your Muse

I beg my best thanks for her verse, & your Goose

With both I am pleas’d, as they fully express

Strong motives of kindness to say nothing less

And proves, “out of sight, out of mind” not quite true

An adage, of old, but not strengthnd in you.

Well, this friend whom so pleasingly you introduce

Is an uncommon pleasant agreeable Goose,

For as soon as she enterd, the intelligent Bird

Began   xxx [?] stling & cackling, in strains yet unheard,

Her master she said, in remembrance held dear

The hours he had spent in much cheerfulness here

Of Friendship she prated, but seemd rather hoarse

But that might arise from her journey of course.

Then good manners in every sense she expressd

And no doubt she will charm, when once she is dress’d

Oh so warmly, so wily, she chanted your praise

And with such pride & pleasure, deliverd your lays,

That George [Reynolds, her husband], & myself, at once felt the charm,

Of Friendship express’d, in language so warm.

But the best thing of all that we could discern

From her notes, were, that quickly you meant to return.

For this welcome news – respect also to you,

I entreated her stay, t’was the least I could do

She graciously bow’d to my kind invitation

And next Thursday at Table will fill up her station.

When to give her the meeting I mean to engage

The serious, the witty, the young & the Sage.

With mirth, song, & reason, to temper the jest

To which good Madame Goose will no doubt give zest.

When your health shall be drunk at this little carouse

But one thing will be wanting – oh – sweet Pinky [??] House

For what more can please than such music as thine

Admir’d & enjoy’d, by a family circle like mine.

Our girls are all charm’d, our Boy is delighted

Whenever they hear that friend Dov [aston] is invited

But I think it high time, I should make some excuse

For say’g so little, in regard to your muse

Who tho, I acknowledge, must needs be admir’d,

Yet, her praises on me are too high – too much fir’d.

In my life, I was never so finely bespather’d

Tho a theme t’was, in which, I can bear to be flatterd

But allow me to smile, that so late in the day

My name should be sung as tho it were May

So good Lady Muse, let me, ere I adjourne

Present my regards as a grateful return

And that you may remain is my ardent Petition

Clear [Chear?] as ye are – not in hobbling condition

As my humble Muse  - who in rhyming or prose

Cannot even earn Glasses to wear on her nose.

This premis’d I don’t find I have further to say

Than our kindest remembrance to self, & to xx xxx

In which Jane, John [Hamilton Reynolds], & Mary, Eliza & Lot [Charlotte Reynolds junior]

Most earnestly beg, they may not be forgot


Charlotte Reynolds


All arriv’d safe and well & were excellent



Saturday 11 November 2023

Review Angela Saini Inferior



Angela Saini describes herself as a science journalist and this 2017 book is a fine piece of investigative journalism in which she goes out of her way to track down and interview academic researchers who over the past few decades have contributed significantly to the study of sex differences. They include experimental and developmental psychologists, evolutionary biologists, primate ethologists, anthropologists, and a few who might be characterised as cognitive scientists. She has read their books and research papers but it is the quotations harvested from skilful interviews which give this book much of its interest and accessibility.

I do have a general problem which I will make central to this review. Saini is interviewing researchers most of whom seek to model their work on an image of physical science in which painstaking laboratory or field work will yield decisive results. It ain’t gonna work. Decisive outcomes are the privilege of those who can control all the variables which might affect the results. Outside a few parts of physical or natural science it is, unfortunately, never possible to close the system; there will always be uncontrolled variables at work. Thus, for example, a much-cited study of newborns by Baron-Cohen and Connellan eventually comes to be criticised because the field researcher (Connellan) knew the sex of at least some of the babies she was interacting with in a situation where, ideally, she should have not known (page 88). It was a variable which had not been controlled for. Search hard enough and you will soon find others and you will find them in (almost?) every experiment.

Replication of someone else’s experiments is a gold standard test of reliability in the hard sciences. But in the fields with which Saini is concerned, replication is rarely possible simply because the human world will have moved on and that is also an omnipresent variable which cannot be controlled. You cannot replicate an experiment done on 1973 Harvard undergraduates on 2023 Harvard undergraduates because they are just going to be very different kinds of people and the cute experiment of 1973 may just seem weird in 2023. The same problem of replication confronts anthropological fieldwork among tribes comfortingly assumed to be remote and untouched by history when, just like everyone else, they are not. If they don’t have them this year, next year they will be carrying smartphones.

There are related problems and most significantly the fact that the very categories in which research is conducted and hypotheses formulated may be flawed by assumptions (stereotypes acting as uncontrolled variables) which anticipate the results even before the work has been done. Wilhelm Reich once nicely highlighted the problem when he said that the question is not why hungry people steal food but why they don’t. Scientists ask what they think are the right questions but what they think is right may be infused by unexamined prejudice, as Saini repeatedly demonstrates in the early chapters of her book. I mean, you can open almost any “scientific” work written in English in the reign of Queen Victoria and discover toe-curling prejudices which would make modern suburban table-talk seem subtle and sophisticated.

In archaeology and evolutionary biology Saini notes in a couple of paragraphs (pages 143 – 45) a really interesting oversight which is actually a fundamental flaw. Everyone knows that the archaeological record is very partial but we can only hypothesise how partial. It’s possible to dig up flint tools, for example, because they can go for millennia without degrading. But what about early baskets, baby slings and digging sticks? They leave no trace. And suppose it was women who invented and made those things and not the men who are always supposed to have made the flint tools and who squat there in all those cartoon-like drawings of prehistoric times? Without the baskets, the baby slings and the digging sticks you have only half the story of early cultural innovation.

There is one problem specific to work on child development. Though Saini indicates the limitations of the “blank slates” approach (page 66) it remains true that very little research tries to look at babies and young children as agents in their own right, with minds and wills of their own, making choices and decisions and agitating for their voice to be heard. In my own work (most recently Culture as Anarchy) I try to keep in mind the question, What is it like to be a baby? and am tempted to answer that it is rather like being a teenager. You will get my point if you consider the question, Why do babies hate vegetables?

Finally, and the elephant in the room, career researchers can and do falsify or big up results on a scale which is only now being acknowledged. In my youth, Hans Eysenck was reckoned a leading research psychologist, most famous for his Personality Inventory. Now his work is deemed “unsafe”. It’s a consequence of his personality flaws but also  of the scientific rat race and of publish or perish and more besides. And it’s happening now at scale.

What is to be done? There are very many millions of people who want to think about sex differences, talk about them, read about them, research and write about them. The chatter isn’t going to stop any time soon, at least not as long as I am alive. But to make any progress much more attention has to be focussed on the core problems of methodology. Routinised research papers which fit into a narrow, prescribed paradigm are to all intents and purposes rarely worth the paper they are printed on.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Review Anthony Trollope Barchester Towers - and the Victorian Novel


Go back fifty years and you will meet a young man who as a teenager had read a handful of Victorian novels and been devastated by one (The Mayor of Casterbridge) but who now had a complete understanding of what was wrong with the genre. These were novels in which an invisible but omniscient narrator created the trompe l’oeil illusion of a real world, tricking us into tears and laughter which diverted us from the temptation to engage in serious critical reflection on the moral and political values for which those novels provided a vehicle. But now grown up, I had learnt – and in three languages – what the alternative was. In Latin, larvatus prodeo [I wear a mask] anchored the idea that if you are wearing a mask then you should point to it as you advance on the stage, that you should make clear that what you are engaged in is the product of artifice and an artificer. In German, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt [alienation effect] was the means by which playwright or author could avoid the crime of jerking (fake) tears and laughter from audience or reader by simply emphasising (frequently) that this is only pretend – a thought experiment, if you like - and you are meant to be thinking not wiping away the tears. In Russian, Shklovsky’s остранение [defamiliarization] labelled the ways in which a verbal artist could make the familiar strange and thereby prompt reflection rather than emotional self- indulgence.

Problem sorted. Farewell the Victorian novel.

Fifty years later and I am reading Anthony Trollope. I read The Warden and enjoyed it and now I’ve just finished Barchester Towers (1857) and enjoyed that too and no doubt in part because it provides so much grist for my anti-clericalism. But what sticks out a mile [larvatus prodeo] is an author who is all over the text, hopelessly intrusive, and very very funny. And if I had to identify the style I would call it High Camp (which may well pair with High Church which, if anything, is the religious value which the novel defends).  

Consider this passage (page 281 in my excellent Penguin edition) towards the end of a fraught, intense, seat-edge clinging exchange between Eleanor Bold [heroine] and a bungling but genuine suitor Mr Arabin [hero]:

As she spoke she with difficulty restrained tears; but she did restrain them. Had she given way and sobbed aloud, as in such cases a woman should do, he would have melted at once, implored her pardon, perhaps knelt at her feet and declared his love. Everything would have been explained, and Eleanor would have gone back to Barchester with a contented mind. How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon’s suspicions had she but heard the whole truth from Mr Arabin. But then where would have been my novel?

It's laugh out loud funny. And the tone of voice (which I can only render with both hands spread open) is self-parodying camp. The reader is still in volume two of what they know (according to the Victorian conventions) is to be a three volume, triple-decker novel and will immediately understand the author’s words. And when we do get to volume three we get (at page 415) this:

But we must go back a little and it shall be but a little, for a difficulty begins to make itself manifest in the necessity of disposing of all our friends in the small remainder of this volume. Oh, that Mr Longman [Trollope’s publisher] would allow me a fourth! It should transcend the other three as the seventh heaven transcends all the lower stages of celestial bliss.

And that’s high camp. I rest my case.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Bargains at Blackwells on Trevor Pateman's Books

I see that my preferred bookseller Blackwells has massively reduced the online prices on my books, most of which they have in stock. Hurry, hurry while stocks last ....

Sunday 24 September 2023

Review: Sarah Ogilvie The Dictionary People

The Victorians were terrific collectors of both the animate and the inanimate, often indiscriminately and always excited by the rare and exotic. Each variety of collector had its name, usually confected out of school Latin or Greek: there were the butterfly collectors (lepidopterists), stamp collectors (philatelists), coin collectors (numismatists), inscription hunters (epigraphers), book fiends (bibliophiles), the magpie collectors of junk in general (antiquaries or antiquarians).  The leading figures in each field were often obsessives who neglected others and themselves – their personal hygiene could not be relied upon – and, as in the notorious case of the bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillips, they could rack up very large debts in pursuit of their hobbies.

As part of this cast of thousands there were also the word collectors - the logophiles, philologists, and lexicographers - who form the subject matter of Sarah Ogilvie’s wonderfully researched,  beautifully conceived and well-executed book in which she narrates the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was created in the period preceding the First World War when James Murray was its long-term editor.

I have my doubts about dictionaries and have never been a great user let alone reader. I possessed a Shorter OED as an undergraduate but don’t have one now.

The Victorian dictionary-makers claimed inspiration from the latest movements in German philology which to the Victorians was really one word, Germanphilology. Ogilvie alludes to Germanphilology but does not really tell us what its achievements were or why we should be concerned with them.

In dictionaries like the OED the living and the dead - words we might use and words we never will - are side by side, the living ones are supposedly illuminated by their history. Their ancestors are to be found in written texts - there was no sound recording of the past available to the Victorians - though the descendant language exists, of course, in both speech and writing. The heart of the lexicographer’s work is the tracking of the way words have been used through time, how their meanings have changed and expanded..

The OED was built very largely on the voluntary efforts of thousands of readers who read not for pleasure but to locate occurrences of words in print which could be dated from the publication in which they occurred and which fairly clearly indicated the sense in which they were being used. Just as stamp collectors hunt for the earliest date on which a Penny Black was used so the OEDs readers tried to push back in time the first occurrence in print of a word which – well, it may now be completely obsolete just like the Penny Black. There are some complications created by the fact that spellings change which are a small part of the problems around treating a word which was used then as the ancestor of a word which is used now.

In the case of what came to be called dialects it is almost exclusively in spoken form that they exist or existed (that’s what got them called dialects in the first place) and before the invention of sound recording they were hard to study unless some writer decided to try their hand at that excruciating genre known as the dialect novel. It was the institutionalised creation of “the English language” which created the dialects in the sense we now understand them.

But though a living language has the past in its DNA it has its meanings in the present, in the current inter-relations of its words as part of active and always mobile semantic fields many of them culturally reflected upon and policed to ensure that we get it right and, among other things, do not cause offence. It is a headache for the Office of Standards that nowadays so many Advanced Warnings are announced in bold letters and so many claims refuted daily in the newspapers

Ogilvie discusses the headaches which sexual words and swear words - she has nothing to say about blasphemous words - caused the Victorian makers of the OED. Alongside what it included there existed all that it excluded; despite the aspirations of its makers to achieve inclusivity. The OED belonged to the cancel culture of its time if only because Oxford University Press believed itself - as it still does - a guardian of morals. (Surprisingly, perhaps, Ogilvie’s book is not published by OUP but under the Chatto & Windus imprint of Penguin/Random House. But neither OUP or the University of Oxford come out of the story she tells in a particularly favourable light).

Propriety lasted well past the Victorian era: Lesbianism did not appear in the dictionary until 1976 before which time the entry for “Lesbian: of or pertaining to the island of Lesbos” was designed to enlighten no one (see Ogilvie page 226). The only concession to modernity was to provide an entry in English, not the Latin once used to keep knowledge of sexual matters away from the lower orders.

Of course, there might sometimes be a good reason for keeping a word out:

“Blandford wrote to him [James Murray] that aphrodisiomania, an abnormal enthusiasm for sexual pleasure, was a word coined by an Italian professor and ‘doubtful whether it can rank as English’. (Murray did not put it in the Dictionary).” (page 161). After all, since there was no abnormal enthusiasm for sexual pleasure anywhere in Victorian England, there was no need for a word anyway.

The OED fosters an illusion that there is such a thing as “the English language” which is more than a social construct or matter of belief and aspiration. In relation to vocabulary the longer you make the vocabulary list the more implausible it is to suppose that what you are cataloguing is “a language”. What you are really doing is attempting a cultural encyclopaedia from small fragments and with no clear boundaries. Ogilvie notes many cases where a word entered into the OED has just one known use (often in a novel or medical textbook) and seems to be unperturbed by that. But to admit words with one known use is really to admit that you are creating a bricabrac shop, a cabinet of curiosities mostly covered in dust.

If there was such a thing as “the English language” at the level of words it would be a fairly simple matter to decide if a word is in it or not. In printed text the presence of a word thought foreign is often indicated by use of italics. Would that it were that simple; loan words cause headaches for the typesetter: is “ennui” an English word and therefore not needing italic?  Does a person’s possession of a “je ne sais quoi” require italic? (See on this site my review of Richard Scholar’s Émigrés on 28 October 2020).

If that is not enough, consider the formation of words by analogy, a favourite of Germanphilologists and something which now excessively happens in the case of -philes and -phobes. I doubt that anyone would challenge the status of “Francophile” as a current English word nor give it italics. But if I am a lover of Australia can I call myself as Australophile ? Or just a lover of Australia? What gets a word into a (living) language is not that some obscure or awkward squad author invents it for a one-off occasion of use but that in some sense it catches on. Clearly, -phobes catch on more easily than   -philes –  that tells you a lot about our culture, I suspect. This morning, I read that Dmitry Peskov has been talking about Russophobia. Smart move; no one wants to be thought a  -phobe.

But because we understand the formation of words by analogy we don’t need a dictionary to know what someone means when they declare themselves an Australophile or Christophobe. It makes no sense to try to create a dictionary out of an indefinitely long list of personal idiosyncracies, including those favoured by the forgotten inventors of forgotten wheezes (see Ogilvie’s chapter on “Glossotypists”). This is the stuff of antiquarianism not of authoritative language guides.

I guess that out there are various answers to the question, How big a vocabulary do you need before you can be counted a fluent speaker or writer of language X? A few hundred? A couple of thousand? The contents of the Shorter version of the Longer dictionary? You can be perfectly fluent in English without knowing what’s in the OED though if you want to write like James Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov it will come in helpful when you want to bamboozle. Most often we identify non-native speakers not by their lack of vocabulary – which may be larger than our own – but by their accent which we can immediately and unreflectively identify as foreign without having any knowledge at all of phonetics, phonology or prosody. And in writing, it is small syntactic oddities not misuses of words which give the game away.

Whatever the English language might be (see footnote for my own answer), one might say that it is at least as much about phonetics, phonology, prosody and syntax as it is about words and their meanings.

Ogilvie records a regret which James Murray had towards the end of his life as the OEDs editor in chief: “If he had his time again, he said that he would have directed his Readers [ those who sought out quotations for the OED] differently, with the instructions, ‘Take out quotations for all words that do not strike you as rare, peculiar, or peculiarly used’”

But looking for the rare is exactly what all Victorian collectors/hobbyists did: they looked for rare butterflies (until they rendered them extinct), rare stamps, and exotic curios. They were uninterested in the ordinary, the everyday, things as common as ditchwater. They often went to great lengths to track down the rare and the exotic and that is what the makers of the OED did too. Like many or most collectors, they were attracted by escapes from everyday life..



Trevor Pateman, “What is English if Not a Language?” in J. D. Johansen and H. Sonne, editors, Pragmatics and Linguistics. Festschrift for Jacob L Mey, Odense University Press 1986, pages 137-40.

Revised and republished in Trevor Pateman, Prose Improvements, degreezero 2017, pages 85-94.