What's New: December 2023

December 14, 2023

This month’s update, introduced by Susan Rennie, has a special focus on Scottish contributions to the lexicography of English and Scots, with new articles on James Buchanan, William Perry, John Jamieson, Alexander Warrack, William Grant, George Marr Watson, and James McLeod Wyllie. Read the introduction.

Buchanan, James (1716/17–1771), grammarian, orthoepist, and educationalist

Grant, William (1863–1946), lexicographer and phonetician

Jamieson [formerly Jameson], John (1759–1838), minister of the Secession church, antiquary, and lexicographer

Perry, William (b. c.1747, d. c.1808), schoolmaster, surgeon, and lexicographer

Warrack, Alexander (1838–1916), lexicographer and minister of the Free Church of Scotland

Watson, George Marr (1876–1950), lexicographer

Wyllie, James McLeod (1907–1971), lexicographer


Introduction to the December 2023 update

Welcome to the 105th update of the Oxford DNB, which adds seven new articles and nine portrait likenesses, with a special focus on Scottish lives, and in particular Scottish contributions to the lexicography of English and Scots. 

From December 2023, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB) offers biographies of 64,901 men and women who have shaped the British past, contained in 62,487 articles. 12,023 biographies include a portrait image of the subject – researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Most public libraries across the UK subscribe to the Oxford DNB, which means that you can access the complete dictionary for free via your local library. Libraries offer 'remote access' that enables you to log in at any time at home (or anywhere you have internet access). Elsewhere, the Oxford DNB is available online in schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions worldwide. Full details of participating British public libraries, and how to gain access to the complete dictionary, are available.

Introduction to the update by Susan Rennie: Scottish Lexicographers

The seven lexicographers whose lives feature in this update are part of the long and distinguished story of Scottish lexicography. All were born, or are thought to have been born, in Scotland, and each made a significant contribution to the lexicography of English or Scots, and in some cases to both. The new articles join earlier ODNB entries for Scottish lexicographers who compiled dictionaries of English, Scots, and Gaelic, including James Murray, William Craigie, David Murison, and William Shaw — and for lexicographers born outside Scotland who worked on Scottish languages, such as Edward Dwelly — to reflect the scope and variety of Scottish lexicography in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.

The Scottish contribution to English lexicography, through figures such as James Murray and William Craigie, has long been acknowledged. The articles on James Buchanan and William Perry show that that influence was already evident in the eighteenth century; and the biographies of George Watson and James Wyllie establish their subjects as important, though sometimes overlooked, figures in the later history of the OED. A new article on William Grant complements the existing entry for David Murison, the second editor of the Scottish National Dictionary, and thus fills a gap in the ODNB coverage of that work. The article on John Jamieson replaces an earlier ODNB entry to incorporate recent scholarship on Jamieson’s life and work, highlighting his role in the development of historical lexicography, with an influence which extended far outwith Scotland. 

Two of the lexicographers, Buchanan and Perry, worked solely on English language dictionaries and grammars, although traces of Scottish English usage were evident in their works. John Jamieson, by contrast, focussed exclusively on Scots, his work reflecting a new interest in the history and preservation of the Scots language, which prescriptivists had previously sought to eradicate. Given the close relationship between English and Scots, it is perhaps not surprising that some lexicographers crossed the linguistic border and worked on dictionaries for both languages. Alexander Warrack worked on the English Dialect Dictionary (albeit as a contributor of Scots words) as well as his own Scots Dialect Dictionary. William Grant published an influential work on the phonology of Scottish English as well as his many works on Scots. In addition to his work on the OED and the Dictionary of American English, George Watson gave valuable advice and assistance to Grant for the Scottish National Dictionary (SND) and wrote his own dictionary of Border Scots; his OED colleague, James Wyllie, contributed to the later volumes of the SND, during the editorship of David Murison, as well as embarking on a major dictionary of Latin, although his deteriorating mental health caused his work on the latter to stall.

There are further connections across the ages. Buchanan and Perry are part of the history of English lexicography, yet their focus on pronunciation links them to Grant, whose fieldwork conducted for the Scottish Dialects Committee emerged from his interest in the phonology of Scots. Their aims, however, were very different. Buchanan and Perry were publishing works which were essentially prescriptive in nature, as part of the eighteenth-century drive to standardize English, whereas Grant was working within the descriptive tradition associated especially with the OED, but which can also be seen in the work of his predecessor, John Jamieson. 

Viewed chronologically, the work of these lexicographers shows a shift from individual to collaborative dictionary work, and from lexicography pursued alongside other careers to lexicography as a full-time profession. Buchanan and Perry both worked as teachers while producing numerous publications; and Perry later supplemented his income by training as a surgeon. Jamieson’s dictionary work was conducted in the interstices between his work as a minister and his many antiquarian interests. Warrack also worked as a minister and only took up lexicography as he neared retirement. Grant had a busy career as a schoolteacher and college lecturer, which later gave way to lexicography as the focus of his professional life. Only Watson and Wyllie, both of whom began their dictionary careers in the twentieth century, were able to pursue lexicography as a full-time profession. 

Geographically, the subjects hail from various parts of Scotland — Grant, Warrack, and Wyllie from the North East, Jamieson from the West, Watson from the Borders — although their working lives took them to other regions and countries. Jamieson is associated especially with Forfar in Angus, where he began his dictionary, although much of his work was undertaken in Edinburgh. Grant lived most of his life in and around Aberdeen, where the Scottish National Dictionary was at first based, before its relocation to Edinburgh after the Second World War. Watson, Wyllie, and Warrack were all drawn to Oxford to work on major dictionary projects; of the three, only Wyllie would return to live in Scotland for a period. 

Financial pressures loom large in several of these lives. Jamieson relied on subscriptions to finance his dictionary, and although Grant had institutional backing from the Scottish National Dictionary Association, he spent considerable time and energy enlisting subscribers to finance the SND. Yet this is tempered by another common thread, of passion towards their subject: the tendency, familiar to many lexicographers, of dictionaries to overtake other interests and permeate one’s life — a hobby, in Warrack’s case, which became a life’s work; the pleasurable obsession, or perhaps welcome distraction, which led George Watson to correct OED proofs in the trenches. 

Although there are no women lexicographers in this update, at least one dictionary spouse, Jessie Grant, was acknowledged in her lifetime for her invaluable assistance. In the early days of the SND, several of Grant’s editorial assistants were women, one of whom, Margaret Stephen, is quoted in the new article; but it was not until the later twentieth century that women were appointed to more senior roles in Scottish dictionary projects. Their presence will likely be felt in future updates to the ODNB, as coverage extends to later decades.

Dr Susan Rennie is a lexicographer and dictionary researcher. She was editor of the first digital edition of the Dictionary of the Scots Language (2004) and is the author of Jamieson’s Dictionary of Scots: The Story of the First Historical Dictionary of the Scots Language (OUP, 2012). 


December 2023: summary of new articles

The grammarian, orthoepist, and educationalist, James Buchanan (1716/17–1771), is thought to have been born in Scotland, and is known to have taught in Edinburgh (where he probably died) and London. His published works on the English language played an important part in the movement to standardize English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. The schoolmaster, surgeon, and lexicographer, William Perry (b. c.1747, d. c.1808), is also thought to have been born in Scotland, and is known to have taught in private academies in Kelso and Edinburgh. He was one of the most prolific lexicographers of the second half of the eighteenth century and achieved a reputation for his dictionaries both in Britain and America. His most influential work, Royal Standard English Dictionary, passed through ten editions by 1805. Born in Glasgow, the son of a minister in the Secession kirk, the antiquary and lexicographer, John Jamieson (1759–1838), followed his father into the ministry at Forfar, where he developed a scheme to compile the first complete dictionary of Scots. Compiled over twenty years, his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) remained the standard scholarly dictionary of Scots until the appearance of the Scottish National Dictionary. The lexicographer, Alexander Warrack (1838–1916), born in Aberdeen, spent forty years as Free Church of Scotland minister at Leswalt, Wigtownshire. In retirement he was a prolific collector of Scots words and dialects, and he went on to compile the Scots Dialect Dictionary (1911), which remained in print until the 1990s. The lexicographer and phonetician, William Grant (1863–1946), born in Elgin, Morayshire, had a teaching career in Scotland before, nearing retirement and settled in Cults, near Aberdeen, he became convener of a Scottish Dialects Committee. His collecting of materials in the dialects of Scots, and efforts to preserve the Scots language, contributed to the Scottish National Dictionary, of which he was the first editor. The lexicographer George Marr Watson (1876–1950), born in Jedburgh, where he was apprenticed to a printer, became a proofreader in Edinburgh before moving to Oxford where he worked for more than two decades on the Oxford English Dictionary, and also contributed to the Scottish National Dictionary. The lexicographer, James McLeod Wyllie (1907–1971), born in Glenbervie, Kincardineshire, studied at Aberdeen University from where he was recommended for employment on the Oxford English Dictionary. He went on to work on the Oxford Latin Dictionary and, like Watson, was a contributor to the Scottish National Dictionary.

In addition, this month’s ODNB update adds six portrait likenesses to accompany Scottish lives already included in the Dictionary. The calligrapher Esther Inglis (1570/71–1624), grew up and worked in Edinburgh, where her French parents had settled when she was a child. Taught calligraphy by her mother, she is known to have written fifty-nine manuscript books. The Edinburgh-born governess Henrietta Fordyce (1734–1823), who went on to achieve a modest degree of fame or notoriety and whose experiences illustrated the difficult predicament of the eighteenth-century governess, who was expected to be at once a servant and a gentlewoman during a period in which paid employment for women was increasingly stigmatized as shameful and degrading.  The Edinburgh physician Alexander Wood (1817–1884), born in Cupar, Fife, played a leading part in Scottish medical politics, advocating a unified, well educated, and duly licensed body of practitioners. His main contribution to medicine was to develop the technique of administering drugs using hypodermic syringe. The sculptor Amelia Robertson Hill (1820–1904), born in Dunfermline, Fife, had a flourishing public career from the 1860s, creating portrait busts of notable Scottish figures and gained several public commissions for memorials. The Glasgow footballer Walter Arnott (1861–1931) was reckoned one of the greatest full-backs Scotland has ever produced, and was the first Scottish player to enjoy cult status. The Edinburgh-born public servant, and translator and writer of philosophical works, Elizabeth Sanderson Haldane (1862–1937) was a member of government committees and in 1920 became the first woman to be appointed a JP in Scotland.


The Oxford DNB is updated regularly throughout the year, giving you access to the most up-to-date and accurate information available. Nearly all public libraries in England, Scotland, and Wales—and all in Northern Ireland—subscribe to the Oxford DNB. This means you can access tens of thousands of biographies, free, via your local library—anywhere, anytime. Full access to all biographies is also available by individual subscription.

Discover a full list of entries added this year.