Why "basis" became "principles"

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I'm in Oxford for one of the events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the release of the Oxford English Dictionary, and one of the things that I've learned is an amusing anecdote about the work's title.

The first fascicle of the OED, published in 1884, contains two versions of the title. The first page, printed in 1880, calls it "a new dictionary on a historical basis"; but the title page, printed after the rest of the first fascicle was done, calls it a dictionary "on historical principles".

Apparently the reason for the change was an argument about which form of the indefinite article to use with the following word "historical": a or an. This argument pitted James Murray, the editor, against Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College and as of 1882, vice-chancellor of the university. The pronunciation of his name, and some sense of his character, can be determined from a rhyme that Wikipedia quotes in two versions:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There's no knowledge but I know it.
I am the Master of this College,
What I don't know isn't knowledge.

or

My name is Benjamin Jowett,
I'm Master of Balliol College;
Whatever is knowledge I know it,
And what I don't know isn't knowledge.

The article also cites a couple of Jowett's witticisms: "What time he can spare from the adornment of his person, he devotes to the neglect of his studies", and "Even the youngest among us is not infallible".

From this we can guess why Murray might have decided to compromise his principles.

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13 Comments »

  1. John Baker said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    Wonderful story. Which position was taken by Jowett, and which by Murray?

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

    I would bet that Jowett was for "an" and Murray was for "a."

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

    It seems to me odd that Murray didn't just choose "bases". "Principles" seems at odds with the purpose of the dictionary.

  4. dr pepper said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

    Hmm.my mother wrote something similar in a college notebook she kept. I'd always assumed it was original.

    As for the rest, i find "an" before a word begining with the h sound to be grating.

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 13, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    Personally, I do too, dr pepper, but I suspect that people who write "an historic" (even though I'm not one of them myself) probably don't typically pronounce the H when saying "an historic". Perhaps they do say the H when just saying "historic" by itself, though.

  6. outeast said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 3:42 am

    "Principles" seems at odds with the purpose of the dictionary.

    Why? To me, it seems a perfect fit for the OED: based upon the principles of historical research.

    As for the rest, i find "an" before a word begining with the h sound to be grating.

    It's one of the utterly nonsensical rules I had drummed into me at school. And Skullturf? The teachers who impressed the rule upon me definitely pronounced their Hs. They also mocked split infinitives, castigated sentence-end prepositions, and insisted that 'or' was exclusively exclusive.

  7. Steve said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 7:37 am

    "I suspect that people who write "an historic" . . . probably don't typically pronounce the H when saying "an historic". Perhaps they do say the H when just saying "historic" by itself, though."

    That is how it's done over here in Albion, yes.

  8. Margaret said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    Is it just me or does the last line not scan in the second Jowett bit? It works for me if it's:

    My name is Benjamin Jowett,
    I'm Master of Balliol College;
    Whatever is knowledge I know it,
    And what I don't know's not knowledge.

  9. Kevin Iga said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    Where is the dialect that says "an historic"? I mean, as a part of the language that is acquired before being swayed by the educational system. Is the drop in the initial [h] only in situations where it follows "an"? If so, this is a bit strange: which happens first: the choice of a/an, or the dropping of [h]? If the a/an is chosen first, then why would "an" be chosen, since the next sound is a consonant? Would the rule then be "before a vowel or h"? If the [h] drop is first, then what explains the drop of [h] in that specific context, and not others? How would the [h] "know" what would precede it, other than that it is an indefinite article?

    It would be interesting to experiment with people whose dialect involved this. Do they always do this with all initial H's? Like "An Hungarian city"? "An hopeful time"? "An happily married couple"? "An heretofore unknown situation"? How about if "a/an" is replaced by another word that ends in "a" or "an": "American (h)istory"? "Camera handle"? What about replacing a/an with other determiners? "The (h)istory"? "My (h)istory"? "One (h)istory"?

    [(myl) See "An hero ain't nothing but a hypercorrection", 2/16/2004; "Hung like a hero", 2/16/2004; "A shibboleth of gentility: [h] from William Shakespeare to Henry Higgins", 3/1/2004.]

  10. Philip Spaelti said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 5:26 am

    @Kevin (and others).

    The idea that "an 'istory" is some kind of dialect form is mistaken. This was the historically prior form. "History" was borrowed from Old French at a time when French had already dropped the "h". The "h"-ful pronounciation is a later innovation of English that is based on spelling and/or historical analogy (to Latin). The "an" is a remnant of the earlier language.

    I had sort of been assuming that part of the irony in the OED's formulation "on a historic basis" (which Jowett would have appreciated) is that the historic basis of "historic" is "'istoric" and therefore "an" would definitely be the historically based variant. So the OED faced with the choice of either looking "prescriptivist" or foolish, simply sidestepped the issue.

  11. Aaron Davies said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 1:26 am

    @margaret, it's "and WHAT i don't KNOW isn't KNOledge". it's a variation on anapestic trimeter, like the "A" lines in a limerick.

  12. Kevin Iga said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    Even if "istory" is the original form, it is strange to see the situation described by Skullturf and Steve above, who discuss people TODAY using "an istoric" but "historic" in other circumstances. I was trying to determine the phonological rules these people today are using when they learned their language.

  13. Roger Hines said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    The variant I was taught flows quite well
    in an 8 8 9 9 meter

    My name is Benjamin Jowett,
    All there is to know I know it.
    I am the master of this College
    And what I know not is not knowledge.

    It was recited to me by an Oxford graduate with an exaggerted Oxford academic accent, and pronouncing "college" and "knowledge" as "Coal-ege" and "Knoal-edge".

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