‘Wordless’: one word’s journey from a Mediaeval Manuscript to the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the greatest achievements of English language scholarship. The brainchild of various members of the Philological Society and edited by James A.H. Murray (1837-1915), it took decades to compile and write the definitions for 600,000 words representing 1,000 years of written English and it continues to grow and change as our language does.

The magnitude of its achievement is not simply in its scale. The Dictionary also provides the etymology of each word and traces usage and sense through quotations from the corpus of written English, seeking out the earliest and most exemplary uses of each word. In order to achieve this unprecedented feat, Murray and his editorial team put out a call for volunteer readers to pore over manuscripts, books, newspapers and magazines. Volunteers were asked to write illustrative quotations for common and unusual words and where they were found on slips of paper and to send these to the Dictionary.

A much smaller group of volunteers (for a time including Murray’s own children) sorted the slips alphabetically by headword into purpose-built pigeonholes. Then the editorial team painstakingly sorted the quotations for each headword into their individual senses before finally writing the definitions. In order to continue funding the project, the publishers released the Dictionary in small volumes known as fascicules, one at a time, between 1884 and 1928.

The word “wordless” provides an example of this process from the perspective of one word from one manuscript in the Trinity College Library collection and the reader who submitted it, to its use as the earliest citation in the OED.

Poems and sermons in English (13th century?) – B.14.52

Trinity ms B.14.52, ff.050v/051r
The folio from B.14.52 containing the word “wordless” as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is located at the bottom of the right hand page.

Known as the Trinity Homilies, this volume contains poems and sermons in an early form of English. M.R. James dates the homilies to the 13th century, but R. Morris and other academics disagree, placing it in the previous century and identifying the language as Old English rather than Middle English. In order to date manuscripts such as this, academics use linguistic forms, word choice, script, dialect and numerous other textual and contextual clues, but as yet no definitive date has been concluded for the Trinity Homilies. What is clear is that this volume is written in a transitional form of English, containing Old French and Latin-derived vocabulary, while retaining many Old English forms from an earlier exemplar that was almost certainly composed in Anglo-Saxon. At least one of the scribes was literate in Anglo-Saxon and translated it rather than simply transcribing it.

The manuscript contains interpolations, explanations of words or passages of an earlier text for the purposes of instruction. They function almost like definitions, making them perfect illustrative examples of meaning for the compilers of the Dictionary. Indeed this manuscript is the 185th most frequently quoted source in the OED and provides the earliest evidence of 287 words, including “wordless”.

The passage quoted in the OED can be found near the end of the right hand leaf of the image above and in the close-up below, and reads: Wordles song is þe herte michele blisse, þe heo haueð of heuenliche ðinge, and ne mai þeroffe be stille, ne mid worde hem atellen. “Wordless songs are the great bliss that the heart hath on account of heavenly things, and may not thereof be silent, nor tell them in words” (trans. R. Morris). It is an interpolation of the Latin word iubilus (related to “jubilation”), translated into English as “wordless song”. Here the author/translator describes a feeling of such joy that one feels moved to sing, but no words will suffice.

Trinity ms B.14.52, f.051r detail
A detail of Trinity MS B.14.52, f.051r, showing the word “wordless” and the quotation used in the OED: “Wordles song is þe herte michele blisse, þe heo haueð of heuenliche ðinge, and ne mai þeroffe be stille, [ne mid worde hem atellen].”
In the OED, “wordless” is sorted into three senses, the oldest of which, “Inexpressible in words; unspeakable, unutterable,” (OED) is illustrated by this quotation. We might use the related phrase “lost for words” today. Its other senses refer to a person characterized by silence or a piece of music or theatre without verbal accompaniment.

You may have noticed that the word “wordless” has been underlined in pencil both times it appears on the page. Perhaps these markings were made by the lexicographer who was researching the book, Richard Morris, though it is not possible to know that for certain.

(Note: this manuscript has been digitized in full and is available to view for free on the James Catalogue.)

 Old English Homilies of the Twelfth Century (1873) translated by R. Morris – LL 108 ET 130

R. Morris detail
Detail of R. Morris’ transcription of the Trinity Homilies, including the passage on “wordless” that was quoted in the OED.

The man responsible for the citation of the Trinity Homilies in the OED was Richard Morris (1833-1894). Like James Murray, Morris was a largely self-taught philologist, having read widely in English and Pali, the traditional language of Buddhism. He was a member of the Philological Society and the Early English Text Society, producing twelve texts, including this volume containing the Trinity HomiliesIn 1876, while he was President of the Philological Society, he suggested James Murray as editor of the OED and was also a volunteer reader.

Like many of his fellow contributors, including James Murray, Richard Morris never lived to see the Dictionary finished. Morris’ quotation for “wordless” was published posthumously, as the fascicule containing headwords from Wise to the end of W was not published until 1928, the 125th and final fascicule produced before the Dictionary was released in full.

Old English Homilies by R. Morris, title page
The title page from R. Morris’ Old English Homilies.
Early English Text Society
Richard Morris’ Old English Homilies, showing his transcription of Trinity MS B.14.52

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