Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 24 April 2024

Ogden, Charles Kayfree


Ogden, Charles Kayfree

  • J. W. Scott
  • , revised by W. Terrence Gordon

Ogden, Charles Kay (1889–1957), psychologist, was born on 1 June 1889 at Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire, the elder son of a housemaster, Charles Burdett Ogden (1849–1923), and his wife, Fanny Hart (b. 1850). He was educated at a preparatory school in Buxton by his uncle, Thomas Jones Ogden, and then at Rossall. He was a good athlete, with school colours for fives, until a serious attack of rheumatic fever when he was sixteen. Turning to intensive study he won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he obtained a first class in part one of the classical tripos in 1910 and played billiards for the university. During 1913 he visited schools and universities in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and India, investigating methods of language teaching. On his return in 1914 he published, with R. H. Best, The Problem of the Continuation School, and also translated Dr Georg Kerschensteiner's Grundfragen der Schulorganisation as The Schools and the Nation (1914).

In 1912 Ogden founded the weekly Cambridge Magazine which, selling at 1 d., was astonishingly successful. In 1916 he converted it into an organ of international opinion and comment on politics and the war, digesting and translating from 200 periodicals weekly for a regular survey of the foreign press, which in 1917 and 1918 filled more than half of each issue. The circulation rapidly rose to more than 20,000. Poems by Siegfried Sassoon and John Masefield, and contributions from Hardy, Shaw, Bennett, and other well-known authors were other unusual features of this university magazine. Throughout this period Ogden was also very busy as president of the Heretics Society, which he had founded in 1911 together with H. F. Jolowicz, P. Sargant Florence, and F. P. Ramsey. The Heretics too became a publishing outlet and papers read before the society by Jane Harrison, Shaw, Chesterton, F. M. Cornford, and G. M. Trevelyan were published between 1911 and 1914.

During a discussion with I. A. Richards on 11 November 1918 Ogden outlined a work to correlate his earlier linguistic studies with his wartime experience of 'the power of Word-Magic' and the part played by language in contemporary thought. Ogden converted the Cambridge Magazine into a quarterly in which he and Richards published a series of articles as a first draft of the book which appeared in 1923 as The Meaning of Meaning. This empirical approach to theoretical confusion about language, setting forth principles for the understanding of the function of language, rapidly became one of the important books of the decade. Chapter 7, a study of the linguistic factor in aesthetics, appeared separately in expanded form under the title The Foundations of Aesthetics in 1922 as the joint work of Ogden, I. A. Richards, and the artist James Wood.

After the demise of the Cambridge Magazine in 1922 Ogden took over the editorship of the international psychological journal Psyche, which he had helped to found in 1920, as a vehicle for publishing research in international language problems and continuing the work of the post-war Cambridge Magazine. He also accepted the planning and editing of two major series: 'The history of civilisation' and 'The international library of psychology, philosophy and scientific method'. The latter series produced 100 volumes in its first decade, many of them stimulated and initiated by Ogden. With the help of F. P. Ramsey he translated for this series the Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he introduced to English readers by a translation of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus as early as 1922.

Throughout this busy period Ogden's linguistic researches gathered pace and momentum. From his earlier studies of the writings of Horne Tooke and Bishop Wilkins he moved to the neglected contributions to linguistics of Jeremy Bentham. Ogden's earliest publications on Bentham and those containing the germ of his idea for Basic English appear side by side in the issues of Psyche between 1928 and 1930. The latter progress from speculation on the simplification of Basic and discussion of universal language to Basic English, so called for the first time in 1929. Basic English was conceived as:

an auxiliary international language comprising 850 words arranged in a system in which everything may be said for all the purposes of everyday existence. Its distinctive features are the selection of words so that they cover the field, the restriction of the vocabulary, and the elimination of verbs except for the sixteen verb-forms which deal with the fundamental operations (‘put’, ‘take’, ‘get’, etc.) and their replacement by the names of operations and directions (‘go in’, ‘put in’, etc.).

Ogden established the Orthological Institute in 1927, revised and published the Basic vocabulary for copyright purposes in 1929, and in rapid succession published the first four essential books: Basic English (1930), The Basic Vocabulary (1930), Debabelization (1931), and The Basic Words (1932). He edited editions of Bentham's Theory of Legislation (1931) and Theory of Fictions (1932), and published his Bentham centenary lecture, entitled Jeremy Bentham, 1832–2032 (1932).

Basic English developed rapidly, setting up agencies in thirty countries, and at the outbreak of war in 1939 Ogden had produced, in Psyche, Psyche Monographs, Psyche Miniatures, and other series, some 200 titles in print in or about Basic English. In 1943 Winston Churchill set up a cabinet committee on Basic English and made a statement to the House of Commons on its report on 9 March 1944. He outlined the steps which the government would take to develop Basic English as an auxiliary international and administrative language through the British Council, the BBC, and other bodies. A Basic English version of this statement and of the Atlantic charter, side by side with the original texts, was published as a white paper (Parl. papers, 1943–4, 8, Cmd 6511) later in the month. Thereafter Ogden, as he tersely recorded in Who's Who, was 'bedevilled by officials, 1944–6'. He was requested to assign his copyright to the crown, which he did in June 1946, and was compensated by £23,000, a sum selected because it was the compensation paid to Bentham for his expenditure on the Panopticon or reformed prison. The Basic English Foundation was established with a grant from the Ministry of Education in 1947.

Throughout his life Ogden, who never married, was a voracious collector of books, amassing complete housefuls of thousands of volumes. In 1953 University College, London, bought his manuscripts, incunabula, early printed books, and his collection on Bentham and Brougham, which included almost 60,000 letters to Lord Brougham. The 100,000 books he left when he died in a London clinic, at 20 Devonshire Place, on 20 March 1957 were bought by the University of California at Los Angeles.

Though Ogden was never able to reassemble the worldwide network of Basic English teaching agencies that had flourished before the Second World War, the sound principles and obvious pedagogical advantages of Basic have continued to attract teachers and users around the globe. The Basic English Association in Tokyo, for example, boasts thousands of members, and the Caterpillar Corporation produces all the manuals for the heavy-duty equipment which it manufactures in a standard system adapted from Basic English.


  • W. T. Gordon, C. K. Ogden: a bio-bibliographic study (1990)
  • I. A. Richards, ‘Some recollections of C. K. Ogden’, Encounter, 9/3 (1957), 10–12
  • private information (1971)
  • personal knowledge (1971)


  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to O. G. S. Crawford
  • McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. with Bertrand Russell
  • U. Sussex, letters to J. G. Crowther
  • UCL, corresp. with William Francis Jackson Knight
  • UCL, MSS relating to legal affairs and the Basic English Foundation


Wealth at Death

£15,792 16s. 10d.: probate, 10 April 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Page of
University of California, Los Angeles
Page of
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Page of
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Page of
private collection
Page of
University of Sussex, Brighton
Page of
University College, London
Page of
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Page of
Cambridge University Library
Page of
University of Reading
Page of
BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading
Page of
Magdalene College, Cambridge