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Eric Partridge in a Pear Tree

Eric Partridge (1894–1979) wrote several flawed but popular and influential dictionaries in the mid-twentieth century, including A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), eventually in eight editions; A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949); Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958); and A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977). He is no stranger to the Lilly Library, which owns the bulk of his papers, including book manuscripts, uncounted correspondence, and curiosities. Madeline Kripke couldn’t resist picking up some of Partridge’s loose correspondence, though she had no idea that, ultimately, the items she collected would complement the Lilly Library’s Partridge collection. 

Madeline’s packet of Partridge materials is miscellaneous, not bought all at once but in pieces. Of course, it is not the only Partridge in her massive, largely unpacked collection. Its various items suggest something of the life of an independent publisher and lexicographer. And, as with so many things in Madeline’s collection, it ends up being less about the obvious subject and at least as much about those connected to it, much as a book may end up being as interesting for its owners as for its text or author, a turn we’ve already taken in some posts to this blog. 

For instance, sixteen items in the cache of Partridge manuscripts were notes to a D. B. Gardner, who appears to have been a correspondent of Partridge’s on lexical matters. On October 6, 1971, Partridge responded to some of Gardner’s suggestions: “Thank you for the two very interesting notes. To have one’s work set is, I think, either idiosyncratic or, more probably (familiar) S[tandard] E[nglish. No; I’d say that the ‘jack, penis, ex your jackal, is accidental. This jack is related to the synonymous ‘John Thomas’. What a tremendous reader you are!” And everyone gets a ribbon for participation — however industrious a reader, Mr. Gardner is not acknowledged in any of Partridge’s prefaces. 

Among correspondents included in Madeline’s packet, that was by no means always the case. 

For instance, Joseph Twaddell Shipley (1893–1988), a drama critic and professor at Yeshiva College (now University) in New York City, and more relevantly, the author of a Dictionary of Word Origins (1945), received two cards that survive in Madeline’s Partridge trove. Partridge lists him in A Dictionary of Catchphrases, as having contributed “patiently and helpfully.” 

Another contributor of note, acknowledged in both the fifth edition of the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, was Wilfred Granville, according to Partridge in the latter work “an indefatigable helper,” who contributed to the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary and is the subject of a forthcoming post. 

One correspondent wasn’t a contributor to Partridge’s books but their purveyor. John Gideon Wilson, Esq., CBE (1876–1963) was managing director of J. and E. Bumpus Ltd. Bookshop on Oxford Street in London, “perhaps the most affectionately regarded figure in the London world of bookselling,” according to his obituary in the Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts

Perhaps the most interesting minicollection within Madeline’s cache of Partridge things is the run of his Christmas cards, mini-essays on interesting word matters, sent to all his friends and business associates — surely better value for word-lovers than a complimentary calendar — which figure among the curiosities. One of the cards introduces an international invented language of gay men called Polari; another presents “Four Linguistic Brevities” to recipients, including “The Principle of Ease of Pronunciation.” Madeline’s set includes nineteen cards from 1938–1977, and the Lilly’s collection already holds many but not all of them. With any luck, Madeline’s contribution will complete the Christmas card collection. It would be something to issue an edition of all the Christmas cards as a holiday treat for word lovers, very much in the spirit of Partridge’s offerings. 

Two Christmas/New Year greeting pamphlets from linguist Eric Partridge.
Two greeting cards from Eric Partridge, from 1948-49 and 1976-1977, the latter inscribed by Partridge.

The 1938 card, interestingly, was sent to Allen Walker Read, a great word scholar and close friend of Madeline’s who will appear often here. Her interest in Read may have been enough to induce her to purchase the lot. The minicollection also includes a note to Read, dated 19 December 1938, requesting that Read do what he could to promote Partridge’s new American imprint of The World of Words (1939). The request was accompanied by a printed list of additions and corrections.  

Read wasn’t the only notable represented among Madeline’s cards. Partridge inscribed a copy of the 1975 edition, “To the Opies (to be known thus is fame)” — Iona and Peter Opie were famous folklorists, authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (9151) and the Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959). 

The folders containing these interesting items also include a letter from W. & G. Foyle Ltd., “Booksellers to the World,” to an A. Sutro at the Standard Oil Building announcing publication of the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in May 1937. That would be Alfred Sutro (1869–1945), a prominent San Francisco lawyer and bibliophile, a longtime member of the Book Club of California. “Under his leadership as President,” Allen L. Chickering wrote in his obituary of Sutro for the California Historical Society Quarterly, “this club has become very widely known and an intellectual force, having drawn members from all parts of the country.” There’s also a pre-publication announcement by the dictionary’s publishers, Macmillan, and a review of the dictionary reprinted from The Times of London dated 15 February 1937. That’s just to say, in combination with other items, there is a lot of publishing history in Madeline’s collection. 

Typed letter on letterhead stationary featuring a depiction of the globe, reading "W. G. Foyle Ltd., Booksellers to the World."
Letter from W. G. Foyle to Alfred Sutro, May 1937.

If you have been following this blog, already you’ve had a glimpse of the social and professional networks behind dictionaries and the study of language more generally. Items in Madeline’s packet of miscellaneous Partridge materials identify nodes in his network, but also indicate a more extensive and diffuse network of readers of his published work, like Sutro. Each card or letter provides evidence for Partridge’s biography, but each also fills a gap in the biography of its recipient, as well as in the histories of publishing and lexicography. 

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