Sir William Alexander Craigie: A Man of Many Words

By Glenn Mills

The print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was once a constant companion to students, academics and writers across the English-speaking world. The inches-thick tome would rest on the bookshelves of households, libraries and universities across the British Isles, ready to be invoked at times of lexical bewilderment or perhaps to arbitrate a heated Scrabble dispute. Its lesser-known northern counterpart, The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, achieved no such ubiquity and continues to receive only a select readership of academics and enthusiasts. Yet despite their differences in fame, both dictionaries are unified in one individual, Sir William Alexander Craigie, who was born on the 13th August 1867. A contributor to the former and the founder of the latter, this notable St Andrews graduate would earn renown within the philological community for his consummate command of West European and Scandinavian languages. On the anniversary of his death on the 2nd September 1957, we pay homage to this man of many words and look at one of the faces behind the OED.

Born the youngest son of James Craigie and Christina Gow, William Craigie spent his formative years in his birth town of Dundee where, under the tutelage of his grandfather and older brother, he was introduced to Scottish Gaelic. This early taste of insular languages instilled in Craigie a passion that would endure for the rest of his lifetime. During his time studying at the West End Academy, Dundee, he began voraciously consuming the works of the early Scottish “Makars” – Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas – who would later become known among literary critics as the Scots Chaucerians for their role as the founding fathers of Scots literature.

W A Craigie
Sir William Alexander Craigie (1867-1957) by Harold Speed, 1949.

Following in the footsteps of many of the Scottish writers whom he admired so much, Craigie enrolled at the University of St Andrews to pursue a degree in Classics and Philosophy. During his time here, his aptitude for languages developed further with German, French, Danish and Icelandic being added to the mix. Graduating in 1888, he was later awarded a Guthrie scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he pursued his interest in Scandinavian studies and began learning Celtic. During a brief sojourn at the University of Copenhagen he added Medieval and Modern Icelandic to his ever-increasing list of languages. His time as a student came to an end in 1983 when he would return to his first alma mater as an assistant to Alexander Roberts, Professor of Latin.

Yet it was not until 1897 that Craigie’s lexicographical career would take flight. The editorial board of the Philological Society’s New English Dictionary (soon to become the OED) were desperate to find a third Editor to aid James A. Murray and Henry Bradley. The father of the chemist D. H. Nagel was well acquainted with Craigie’s talents and urged his son to put Craigie’s name forward as a potential candidate. Despite having never heard of the young Scotsman, Nagel indulged his father’s request, recommending Craigie to the OED delegate, Charles Cannan. In late May, Craigie received the fateful letter inviting him to work on the Dictionary on a trial basis; an invitation he accepted with characteristic alacrity. Ever the romantic, he even postponed his honeymoon with his newly wedded wife, Jessie Kinmond, to take up the position.

Craigie’s early months in his new career were tumultuous at best. His unorthodox appointment was done without consulting the Chief Editor James Murray, a notoriously irascible figure who did not take kindly to having his authority disregarded. His fury was only compounded by the fact that Craigie had no prior experience in lexicography and that his presence in Oxford was predominately the result of nepotism. Murray’s threats to resign put the future of the OED in considerable jeopardy, but fortunately, it was well known that Murray’s bark was worse than his bite. His granddaughter once observed that he ‘threatened resignation so often that the delegates had probably ceased to take the possibility seriously’. True enough, he continued to tolerate and eventually respect the budding lexicographer. This respect was officially recognised in 1901 when Craigie was finally appointed an independent editor of the OED – a position he would hold for a quarter of a century.


A person of mild ambition might well stop there, but Craigie’s hunger for language was far from sated. At the time of the First World War, increased interaction with other English-speaking peoples heightened Craigie’s alertness to regional and chronological variants of the language. Noting the occasional unintelligibility among Englishmen, Scots and Americans, Craigie set about making proposals for a “family” of dictionaries covering Old and Middle English, American English and Scots. In 1925, he was invited to take up a professorship at the University of Chicago where, in addition to his continued contributions to the OED, he began compiling a dictionary of American English. As a side project, he also began work on what would become the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, reviving his interest in Older Scots literature as an undergraduate at St Andrews. Craigie eventually “retired” in 1936, however, as we might predict, the endearingly stubborn workaholic continued his prolific career, compiling a dictionary of Icelandic and later contributing to a historical dictionary of Anglo-Norman before his death in 1957.

Craigie’s story is one of personal drive, diligence and endurance. Never satisfied with what he already knew, this exemplary scholar embodies the very essence of the St Andrews spirit and is a reminder to all of us of the reason we are here: ever to excel.



‘Craigie, Sir William Alexander (1867-1957), lexicographer and philologist’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May, 2015).

Gilliver, Peter, The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 2016).

McArthur, T. (ed.), The Oxford companion to the English language (Oxford, 1992).


About Glenn Mills

Glenn is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying English and Medieval History. He has particular interests in the University’s famous alumni and enjoys examining their correspondences in the Special Collections Library. 


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