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date: 15 July 2020

Burchfield, Robert Williamfree

  • John Simpson

Burchfield, Robert William (1923–2004), lexicographer, was born on 27 January 1923 at 58 Pitt Street, Wanganui, New Zealand, the younger son of Frederick Burchfield (1891–1979), formerly a coalminer and subsequently an electricity company employee, and his wife, Mary Lauder, née Blair (1894–1974). His father was born in the village of Halling, near Rochester, Kent, and the family had emigrated when Frederick Burchfield was fourteen; his mother was born at Fortrose, Southland, New Zealand, her family having previously emigrated from Scotland.

Burchfield attended the Keith Street primary school and Victoria Avenue intermediate school in Wanganui, and subsequently Wanganui Technical College. He was proud that his subsequent achievements stemmed from a public education. By the age of seventeen his academic prowess had earned him a place in the English department of Victoria University College in Wellington. His university course was interrupted by the Second World War, though he completed his BA course part-time while in uniform. In 1941 he was conscripted into the Royal New Zealand Artillery and went in 1944 with a survey troop to northern Italy. He described his time there as 'the great adventure' of his life, mixing with his fellow soldiers, learning Italian, playing rugby, and experiencing the excitement of military service (E. Burchfield, unpublished memoir). In 1946 he was discharged from the army and returned to New Zealand to take his MA degree (1948) and to work as a junior lecturer in English.

In 1949 Burchfield's life took a new turn, with the award of a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford (he was an undergraduate at Magdalen College) and his marriage on 2 July, in Palmerston North, New Zealand, to Ethel May Yates (1924–2001), daughter of John Yates and Lily, née Beaumont. He never returned to live in New Zealand, but his experience of growing up there informed his approach to scholarship and to lexicography for the rest of his life. His fascination with philology had begun at Victoria, but it flourished in Oxford, where he studied under J. A. W. Bennett, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. He graduated BA at Oxford in 1951 (and MA in 1955). Tolkien supervised his postgraduate work on the Ormulum, a twelfth-century verse text characterized by its semi-phonetic spelling system.

Burchfield seemed destined for a conventional academic career. In 1952 he was appointed to a junior lectureship in English language at Magdalen College, and in 1953 to a lectureship at Christ Church. In 1955 his long association with St Peter's College in Oxford began, initially as a lecturer, then from 1963 as a fellow. Alongside academic articles he published The Land and People of New Zealand in 1953, with his wife. From 1950 he had a growing family, with three children (two girls and a boy); he delighted in the mix of family and academic life that he experienced in Oxford.

While at Magdalen Burchfield got to know Charles Talbut Onions, one of the original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In 1957 Onions recommended Burchfield to Oxford University Press as editor of a proposed single-volume Supplement to the OED. Burchfield was appointed, and began a twenty-nine-year journey through the alphabet culminating in the publication in 1986 of the final volume of what had become a four-volume labour of love. The editorial department of the OED had been disbanded in 1933, and Burchfield effectively had to rebuild it and its resources from scratch. He recalled his first day on the Supplement in 1957, 'spent in a thorough reading of that day's Times' for the dictionary (E. Burchfield, unpublished memoir). Gradually he built up an editorial staff and laid the groundwork for a word file that would form the basis of the new Supplement. The publication of Webster's Third International Dictionary in 1961 convinced him that he needed to collect much more material. His teaching duties at St Peter's continued until 1990, but work on the dictionary began to take over his life.

In 1972 Oxford University Press published the first volume (A–G) of the Supplement, to general acclaim. In 1975 Burchfield was appointed CBE, and he received honorary doctorates from the universities of Liverpool and Victoria in 1978 and 1983 respectively. His first marriage having ended in divorce in 1976, on 5 November that year he married Elizabeth Austen Knight (b. 1927), a fellow New Zealander and a senior publicity officer at Oxford University Press; she was the daughter of Cedric Hankinson Knight, a company manager. Burchfield's New Zealand background made him particularly conscious that the Supplement should enhance the OED's coverage of international varieties of English, and the achievement of this remains one of his legacies to the dictionary. In the first volume (A–G) he added to the dictionary the celebrated four-letter words that the original editors had not been permitted to include. He was occasionally confronted with requests (even death threats) suggesting that he omit some sensitive words from the OED, but he refused to allow the content of the dictionary to be censored. He was adamant that the dictionary should remain descriptive rather than becoming prescriptive. He had little truck with what he regarded as the algebraic approach of some contemporary linguists.

While working on the Supplement Burchfield served as honorary secretary to the Early English Text Society (1955–68) and as editor of Notes and Queries (1959–62). He produced a number of books (notably The Spoken Word, 1981, The English Language, 1985, and The New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 1986). The fifth volume of the Cambridge History of the English Language, English in Britain and Overseas, was published under his editorship in 1994. He also maintained his output of academic articles and reviews on the language. The completion of work on the Supplement gave him the opportunity to turn to his other academic interests. He toyed with the idea of returning to his earlier work on the Ormulum, but was soon swept up in a new project, a revision of Fowler's Modern English Usage, continued after his retirement from Oxford University Press in 1986 and published in 1996. He applied his descriptivist techniques to this work, and produced a text that pleased some and frustrated others.

Burchfield's retirement in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, was clouded by the onset of Parkinson's disease in the late 1990s, and apart from rechecking for the OED the many hundreds of quotations from the Ormulum in his transcript of the original manuscript he became unable to continue his academic pursuits. He died of bronchopneumonia on 5 July 2004 at Abingdon Hospital. After a funeral service at St Peter's College on 12 July his body was cremated, and the ashes interred in Sutton Courtenay churchyard on 4 August. He was survived by his second wife, Elizabeth, and his three children.


  • E. Stanley and T. Hoad, eds., Words: for Robert Burchfield's sixty-fifth birthday (1988)
  • The Times (6 July 2004)
  • Daily Telegraph (6 July 2004)
  • The Guardian (7 July 2004)
  • The Independent (9 July 2004)
  • E. Burchfield, memoir, priv. coll.
  • WW (2004)
  • personal knowledge (2007)
  • private information (2007) [Elizabeth Burchfield, widow]
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.


  • Bodl. Oxf., papers on Ormulum
  • Oxford University Press, lexicographical and grammatical papers


  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, light entertainment footage


  • BL NSA, Desert island discs, interview with Roy Plomley, 1CDR0012578 BD6
  • BL NSA, current affairs recording
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings


  • A. Stones, resin master for bust, priv. coll.
  • obituary photographs
  • photograph, repro. in Stanley and Hoad, Words, frontispiece
  • photograph, repro. in The Times (1996)
  • photographs, Oxford University Press

Wealth at Death

£213,952: probate, 19 Nov 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Bodleian Library, Oxford
British Film Institute, London, National Archive
private collection
British Library, National Sound Archive