Memoir: Eric Partridge

(Memoir about Eric Honeywood Partridge, lexicographer; born February 6, 1894 and died June 1, 1979: 85 years)

He was born in Waimata Valley, Gisborne, New Zealand and studied at Queensland and Oxford universities, was elected Queensland traveling fellow at Oxford after World War 1, and briefly lectured at Manchester and London universities (1925–7).

For most of his life he worked as a freelance writer, carrying out a vast amount of painstaking personal research into the history and meaning of words.

He is best known for his specialized studies of slang and other aspects of colloquial language.

    Among his publications on language are the following:

  • A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which was published in paperback as A Dictionary of Historical Slang and was abridged by Jacqueline Simpson.
  • A Dictionary of Clichés.
  • Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947).
  • A Dictionary of the Underworld (1950).
  • Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958).
  • Name this Child (1959), a book of Christian names.
  • Comic Alphabets (1961).
  • The Gentle Art of Lexicography (1963).
  • A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977).

Eric Partridge's first collection of essays was entitled Words, Words, Words.

How could it have been anything else? For more years than it is comfortable to remember or seemly to forget, he has served his Queen's English and its cousins abroad as a dauntless guardian of the majestic and occasionally frolicsome English tongue.

  • In dictionaries massive, glossaries exhaustive, articles frothy, reviews engaging, he has put words in their place, communicating delight in well-ordered vocabularies and impatience with collections of letters artlessly posing as words.
  • Edmund Wilson, who also knew a thing or two about words, hailed partridge as "the word king", and others acknowledged his primacy by calling him "the dictionary man" or "the word man".
  • Although he took Wilson's tribute in good spirit, the other titles wearied him; almost beyond words. "Clichés", he called them.
  • A Dictionary of Clichés is one of his standard works. "Useful and almost readable", he called it, and spoke of "that excellent blood sport" cliché-hunting".
  • Partridge's quotes

  • "Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them."
  • He described his Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English as, "scholarly, readable, refreshing, brilliantly organized".
  • "I don't regard myself—please excuse the switch from the impersonal he to the egotistic I—as an expert at anything; probably rightly, for I'm pretty sure I'm not."
  • "Expressions that offend me are clichés in general; all slipshoddery; unnecessary neologisms; obscene words and phrases that are dragged in for the sake of obscenity; not those which are integral, entirely natural, to dialogue or other matter."
  • More about his ideas

  • Partridge was not a university professor and did not think of himself as learned.
  • A scholar takes too much for granted; an outsider can see things fresh.
  • He bristled when anyone was called a "gifted amateur" and re-bristled when he came across those he called "career boys" in fields acacdemic, literary, artistic, or theatrical.
  • When he was asked to suggest a bouquet of phrases appropriate for greeting a gentleman of letters commemorating 80 years (in 1974) of struggle with those letters, he replied:

  • "The only phrase or adage I can think of as being in the least adequate and relevant is the motto of the Salvation Army, 'Keep on keeping on.' "
  • "The unkind might propose 'Evidence of a misspent life.' "
  • "Anyway, I have, in the main, enjoyed it—and hope to go on doing so for a while."
  • "I'm one of those bloody fools who don't know when they're beaten."
Excerpts from "Hail to the 'Word King' "
by Israel Shenker, SR/World (Saturday Review/World);
September 21, 1974; pages 30-31.

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