John Simpson, OBE (Doctor of Letters)

Oration by Professor Gordon Campbell

John Simpson was until recently Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. This dictionary, which in its print form fills 20 large volumes, is a national treasure, and it is widely (and quite correctly) perceived to be the ultimate authority on the English language. In France, the French language is the responsibility of the Académie française. John was for twenty years the British equivalent of the French Academy, leading a team of some 70 editors in the task of updating the Oxford Dictionary.

The OED is a descriptive and not a prescriptive dictionary. It describes English as it is, both today and in the past; both in Britain and anywhere else in the world where the language is spoken. It might be described as the “go-to” source for information about English vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon period up to the present day. But the dictionary is more than just a dictionary of words. We must remember that words arise out of the societies in which they are used. So in many ways the OED is an index of the English-speaking peoples over the centuries.

Keeping this sort of resource up to date is a significant task. What was John’s background? He studied at the University of York, where he read English Literature and captained the university hockey team, and at Reading University, where he took an MA in Medieval Studies. On graduating in 1976 he joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, and entered an environment dominated by millions of index cards that recorded historical and current examples of how English words were used.

At the time, all of this material was organised and analysed by hand, as had been the case since the dictionary was founded in 1879.  John came to the view, regarded by many as far-fetched, that the future of dictionaries would be digital, and so in 1983 signed up for an A-level evening class in Computer Science.  The A-level requirements included a project, and John wished to make use of his knowledge of cricket to construct a relational database of cricket terms. His tutor had better ideas, however, and set him on the road to building a spelling checker which would analyse incoming text. In this simple program lay the seeds of what was to become the online version of the Dictionary, first published in the year 2000 and growing in size every quarter.

Why does a dictionary need revision? Does language change that fast? Definitions in dictionaries can certainly become dated. My 1963 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, for example, defines the 'simple life' as the 'practice of doing without servants'.  In the case of the full-scale Dictionary, many of the definitions had either become antiquated or failed to keep up with changing usage. John was appointed as Chief Editor in 1993, and in the course of his twenty years in post he oversaw the addition of 60,000 new words and meanings, the revision and update of almost 40% of the text, the launch of the CD version and then the online version of the OED.

The boon to users, especially academic users, has been extraordinary. If one wants to know the precise meaning of the verb 'to do', for example, one can turn to the print edition. In its first edition the entry for ‘to do’ is eight column feet long and distinguishes 83 senses of the word. Imagine the time saved by consulting this in its electronic version – which, by the way, now contains 139 screensworth of information on almost two hundred separate meanings of ‘do’.

The OED has always endeavoured to be a record of English as a global language, and under John's direction the Dictionary has actively acquired large numbers of new words from national varieties of English from all around the world. John has also addressed the question of accessibility, and pushed vigorously for online dictionary data to be presented to users not just as words, but also graphically and through visualisation – as these are far more approachable accessory media for many of the dictionary’s expanding readership.

Even though the dictionary has always been “descriptive”, even such a basic concept as this has changed over the decades. The original Dictionary contained many instances of usages and spellings which it described as “erroneous”, and under John's stewardship, that prescriptive term from another era of scholarship has been dropped.

How wide is the English language? Should the Dictionary include slang? This is an area in which John has been a central figure, because he is a global authority on slang, and shares with our colleague Professor Julie Coleman a professional interest in dictionaries of slang. John took the view that the dictionary should not only include slang, but should record it in detail from websites and other informal sources which were not available to earlier editors of the OED. John is also an authority on proverbs, and was the editor of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. In English-language literature, the most challenging author by the measure of language is James Joyce, and John is the co-editor of the James Joyce Online Notes, which publishes research on the vocabulary and allusions in Joyce's fiction.

Many of our honorary graduates have a Leicester connection, and in John's case, his ancestral links to the Gee family associate him with the very foundation of this University.  John’s great-grandfather Edward Simpson was co-founder - in 1834 - of the Stead and Simpson shoe company. Harry Simpson Gee, a nephew of Edward Simpson and subsequently chairman of the shoe company, was, together with his own family, a generous supporter of this University. He was the founding Treasurer of the University, and when he died in 1924 he left the University £20,000. Historic equivalents can be calculated in various ways, but by the measure of what could be bought with £20,000 in 1924, it is the equivalent of more than seven million pounds today. Harry's son Percy Gee, after whom our Students' Union Building is named, served as Chair of Council in the post-war period, and in 1957 led the transition of this institution from a college of the University of London to an independent university.  John's support for this University may therefore be said to be grounded in his genes.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and the Council, I present to you John Simpson, that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters.

Written and delivered by Professor Gordon Campbell on 23 January 2015 at 10am

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