Bradley came to Murray’s attention in February 1884 when he reviewed the first fascicle of the Dictionary, A-Ant, in the Academy, a weekly literary magazine run by J. S. Cotton in London. Bradley’s review praised the clear format and simple design of the Dictionary and its economy in using quotations, but it also challenged Murray’s etymology, and this caused quite a stir. At the time, Bradley was an unknown freelance writer with no official academic credentials, yet his essay, showing a close knowledge of several languages, contained criticism that none of Murray’s colleagues had been able to provide. Anemone could not correctly be rendered as “daughter of the wind," for example, because the Greek suffix was not “exclusively patronymic,” and alpaca was not Arabic in origin, as Murray had written, but more likely Spanish.
Bradley’s triumph was that both his praise and his criticism were fair and well-tempered; he was admiring without being sycophantic and corrective without being hostile. Recognizing that he had found a worthy peer who could prove invaluable in creating the Dictionary, Murray hired Bradley, first as an assistant editor, then as joint senior editor.
He has been overshadowed by James Murray, and it must be conceded that Bradley was a slower, less durable worker, frequently ill. However, he remains a noteworthy linguistic scholar, largely self-taught. Much like Murray, Bradley had humble beginnings—as a farmer’s son in Nottinghamshire—but by adolescence he was already steeped in several languages of Classical learning, and he is supposed to have learned Russian in only 14 days. Simon Winchester records that some of Bradley’s childhood notebooks, discovered by a friend, contained
“…lists of words peculiar to the Pentateuch or Isaiah, Hebrew singletons, the form of the verb to be in Algerine, Arabic, bardic and cuneiform lettering, Arabisms and Chaldaisms in the New Testament, with vocabularies that imply he was reading Homer, Virgil, Sallust and the Hebrew Old Testament at the same time. In another group the notes pass from the life of Antar ben Toofail by ‘Admar’ (apparently of the age of Haroun Arrashid) to the rules of Latin verse, Hakluyt and Hebrew accents, whereupon follow notes on Sir William Hamilton and Dugald Stewart and a translation of parts of Aeschylus’ Prometheus…”
Remarkably precocious as this erudition was, Bradley had found no public outlet for it before writing his column in the Academy. For a long time, he was employed as a simple corresponding clerk for a cutlery firm in Sheffield, and he was already 39 years old when he began editing the Dictionary. Soon afterward he began to get the recognition he deserved, receiving honorary degrees from Oxford and Heidelberg and becoming a fellow of Magdalen College and the British Academy. He also served as President of London’s Philological Society, which still exists, and helped found the Society for Pure English, along with the renowned Henry Watson Fowler and others.
It was for the S.P.E. that Bradley wrote his last piece, an introduction to “Tract No. XIV: On the Terms Briton, British, Britisher.” He wrote the first three paragraphs, suffered a stroke, and died two days later. The piece was finished by Robert Bridges and published along with Fowler’s “Preposition at End” and a brief obituary. Short papers such as this one—another example being “On the Relations Between Spoken and Written Language,” read before the International Historical Congress in 1919—are available in The Collected Papers of Henry Bradley. Longer works include a history entitled The Goths (1887) and The Making of English (1904).
Because it does not showcase his linguistic brilliance, The Goths misses the essence of Bradley. The truly interesting book is The Making of English, the culmination of a philological life. It assesses change in English and the reasons for its borrowings from other tongues down through history, all without resorting to the obscure sets of symbols so unhappily relied on by specialized linguistics. In his Author’s Preface, Bradley addresses the book “to educated readers unversed in philology,” and he succeeds in popularizing his specialty and making it readable rather than resorting to jargon, which he considered an affront to plain English.
Arguably, there would be far less popular interest in Bradley today if he had not been included in Simon Winchester’s history The Meaning of Everything, which honors the fascinating society of scholars who worked on the O.E.D. Winchester’s book treats Bradley at greater length than any of the other histories in which he has appeared, and has revived a stronger curiosity about him than others have managed to do. Those researching James Murray and Henry Watson Fowler will also find Bradley mentioned in Caught in the Web of Words, by Elisabeth Murray, James’s granddaughter, and in The Warden of English, by Jenny McMorris.
Jenny McMorris, The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler, 2001. ISBN 0-19-866254-8.
K.M. Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, 1977. ISBN 0-300-02131-3.
Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything, 2003. ISBN 0-19-517500-X.
PETER HENRY BRADLEY | ANDREW RYAN CARLSON | RILEY CHRISTOPHER DOYLE | REILANI MAELEA FUIMAONO | ROBERT NEIL GIAGNORIO | CHRISTIAN ALEC HOFFER | BRENNAN ANNE MALLON | JACK PATRICK MOUSSEAU | ANNA CAROLINE NUSSBAUM | NATHAN ANTHONY ROSKUSZKA | CIARAN PATRICK YOUNG | JOHN CHARLES DUGGAN | KRISTIN NICOLE LINK
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VALLEY REGISTER: Snapshots of history; Historical society gets antique slides showing a peek of the Valley's past
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