Lowth in the OED

One of the ways I adopted in my Introduction to Late Modern English (Edinburgh University Press, 2009) to see to what extent people had left their mark on English vocabulary was by looking for their first usages in the OED. The most prolific writer in this respect was the novelist and printer Samuel Richardson, with 245 words. With only 8 words, Lowth came disappointingly low on my list.

The OED has been under revision for a while, so I decided to check how much of these words were still attributed to him. Only six, it turned out: atrociously, bacchiac, commentatorship, distichal, intolerance and suffix (interestingly, Word only approves of three of these). Small though this set is, it can be neatly divided into two categories: technical words and words from his polemical correspondence with William Warburton. The following quotation illustrates this best:

1765   R. Lowth Let. to Warburton 62   You, my Lord, is it You of all men living, that stand forth to accuse another of Intolerance of Opinions!

With only six words left to his name, Lowth was no linguistic innovator. But would he have coined the word intolerance? A Google n-gram search suggests not. Perhaps even Warburton had used it before him. In any case, Lowth was merely an early adopter of this word, but it was to spread very quickly after him.


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Just out: another paper on Lowth

Yesterday, Robin Straaijer tweeted: It’s taken a while, but it’s finally been published in . I

In the article, he discusses “possible sources for Priestley’s norm of correctness in his grammar book, The Rudiments of English Grammar, from a socio-historical perspective. I will show that Priestley’s norms of correctness were informed by the usage of the well-educated middle class, the language of science, Robert Lowth’s grammar and the discourse community of eighteenth-century grammarians, and a contemporary canon of good and bad usage.”

Congratulations, Robin! I look forward to reading it.

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Lowth an Archbishop?

In my book The Bishop’s Grammar (OUP, 2011), I tried to put an end to the myth that it was as a bishop that Lowth wrote his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). While he was indeed a clergyman when he wrote his grammar, he did not do so because he was one, but because he had the interests of his son at heart. He wanted Thomas Henry to have the best educational opportunities life could offer.

Just now, I found Lowth the grammarian being referred not as a bishop, which I’m quite used to, but as an archbishop: a post which had indeed been offered to him, but which he had to refuse for reasons of health (see chapter 2 of my book). A grammatical promotion in other words! The reference occurs in the book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (CUP, 2006).

Allan and Burridge (2006)

I can hardly blame Allan and Burridge for not having seen my book, but it does show sloppy research: Lowth is not described as an archbishop in the ODNB online or in his wikipedia entry, simply because he never was.

But I do blame Allan and Burridge for saying that in his private letters Lowth “constantly flouted” the grammatical rule that strong verbs like write and ride have different past tense and participle forms. I blame them for the historical inaccuracy of what they write, because the strong verb system was still highly variable at the time, with variation in private writings like informal letters and diaries being greater (and accepted as such) than in published texts. But also for quoting me for making this generalising statement: in my article on the strong verb system (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2002) I only mention the fact that there are eleven (11!) instances in which the modern strong verb forms are not attested. In a corpus of ca. 30,000 words this hardly warrants the conclusion (theirs, not mine) that he “constantly flouted” the rules of his own grammar. The facts are far more subtle than the authors suggest.


Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2002. Robert Lowth and the strong verb system.
Language Sciences 24: 459–70.

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A new letter by Lowth

A new letter by Robert Lowth has come to light:

new letter by Lowth

It is advertised on the website Modern First Editions (from which I took this image). This is very interesting news, but I have a lot of questions:

  • the information on the website says that the letter is signed, but it lacks a signature, so what made the sellers identify it as a letter from Lowth? (And why do they claim it is signed?)
  • if there is no date or place, on what grounds is it dated 1767? It is said to have been sent from Oxford, but this cannot be seen in the letter itself.
  • how did they get hold of it?
  • why would someone wish to sell the letter?
  • who is it addressed to?

But most importantly of all, why do they ask so much for it? Three hundred pounds is a great deal of money for a letter that isn’t really very informative and that is in far from perfect condition.

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A scrap of a letter from Lowth

I’m very pleased to have become the owner of a scrap of a letter by Lowth, which basically contains his signature only. I was in two minds about bidding for it on ebay, because I’m appalled at the idea that autograph hunters cut up original letters just for the sake of the signature, but the original owner let me know that this had already been done in the nineteenth century.

Here it is (the image was taken from ebay):

Lowth's signature

I think I have a pretty good idea as to who the addressee may have been, and will argue my case as soon as I have the document in my possession.

Thanks to Samuli Kaislaniemi for bringing the scrap to my attention.

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An authentic portrait of Lowth?

This image with a detail from the newly discovered picture of Robert Lowth shows part of the spine of the book in the portrait:

Lowth's De Sacra Hebraeorum

Lowth’s De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum

The spine, however, also reads “DONVM AVTORIS”, a gift from the author. I suppose it could mean anything: why would Lowth hold a gift to himself? Could the man in the portrait be someone else perhaps? But perhaps there are good reasons to accept the portrait as representing Lowth after all: the likeness is indeed very close to the Pine engraving. Perhaps it wasn’t the book as such but the portrait that was a gift from the author. If so, this would be a very subtle hint indeed.

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New portrait by Robert Lowth?

An oil painting has just shown up that might very well represent Robert Lowth.

Copyright Ben Cavanna

Though the painter is currently unknown, the portrait shows clear similarities with the one that you normally see when you google for images of him.

“From an original Picture by R.E. Pine, in the Possession of the Rev. Robert Lowth M.A. Drawn by W. Evans. Engraved by J. Godby.”

Once restored, the portrait will be put up for sale. As there are very few oil paintings by Lowth available, there might be considerable interest in the portrait. If you wish to acquire the portrait, please reply to this post in the form of a comment. Comments don’t go online automatically, and they will be treated with the greatest conficence.

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