A man of very many words


EssayThe bicentenary of Richard Chenevix Trench, one-time archbishop of Dublin and instigator of the Oxford English Dictionary, is to be celebrated in Dublin next weekend, writes Lucy Trench, his great-great-granddaughter

In the dining room at home, as I grew up, there was always an extra presence - not the ghost of big-house folklore, but an old man wearing an episcopal ring and the order of St Patrick. Bowed down by illness and care, he was a melancholic figure, yet benign and familiar. This was the portrait of Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster, Archbishop of Dublin and instigator of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although my great-great-grandfather was so present in our lives, I knew little about him. There were family anecdotes, of course, and a long row of books on the landing - T he Study of Words, English Past and Present, Poems, Notes on the Miracles, Notes on the Parables, Lectures on the Thirty Years War- all unread.

I knew he was Irish by birth: his father, Frederick Trench, was a younger son of a numerous Ascendancy family in Galway and his mother, Melesina Chenevix, was the beautiful and clever granddaughter of a Huguenot bishop of Waterford. I knew that in his youth he had joined an armed rising in Spain, a disastrous attempt to overturn the corrupt monarchy, and that during the Famine he had helped set up soup kitchens. I knew he was co-founder of my school, Alexandra College, as a place where girls could receive a university-level education. But of his intellect and his thought, I knew nothing. My father was too busy writing his own books to read those of his ancestor, and I was too young to find out for myself.

But now we are celebrating his bicentenary. Trench was born in Dublin on September 9th, 1807, and died in London in 1886. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, under a slab of Irish marble marked with a Celtic cross and interlace. There will be a special evensong and lecture at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, September 9th, and a family wreath-laying ceremony at Westminster on September 22nd.

ALL THIS HAS prompted me to read some of his work and think about his legacy, both public and private. His time at Westminster was not especially distinguished, and his 20 years in Dublin were marked by tremendous battles over disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; imposed by Gladstone, this was a great sorrow to Trench, and he fought hard to preserve the church's status. Instead, Trench's finest memorial lies in his writing. Much of the poetry is too imperialistic or religious for modern tastes, but his Study of Wordsstill has echoes in any study of language, from George Orwell to Lynne Truss.

Trench on Words, as it became known, was one of the standbys of every educated household. First published in 1855, it ran to 29 editions and was in print for more than 80 years. Philology in the 1850s was a fashionable science, the literary counterpart to geology in that it unveiled the secrets of the past. Trench, however, was less interested in the origin of words than in the divine nature of language. He believed that language was a gift from God that enables us to take possession of creation and enact God's purpose. But since it changed and evolved, language was also a "moral barometer" that reflected the highs and lows of man's moral stature.

Words, he said, "beat with the pulses of our life; they stir with our passions; we clothe them with light; we steep them in scorn; they receive from us the impressions of our good and of our evil". Among thousands of examples from languages ancient and modern, he cited the Italian word "abbacinare" as evidence of man's cruelty (it means "to deprive of sight by holding a red-hot vessel close to the eyeballs"), and the uniquely English word "club" as representing the freedom and moderation of English social and political life.

England, its character, literature and history, was the other great theme in Trench's study of words. He believed that a language was the achievement of an entire nation, unlike a literary work, which is the output of one individual. When, in 1857, he gave a lecture on Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionariesto the London Philological Society, it was the national significance of English rather than its moral qualities that he had in mind. The existing English dictionaries were defective, and English scholarship lagged behind that of France and Germany. Now was the moment to embark on an entirely new dictionary. At home, it would benefit the "common man", who, for the first time, had access to learning but would not have the privilege of a classical education. Overseas, in this imperial age, it would spread English language, culture and religion.

With clarity, common sense and vision, Trench also proposed the underlying principles of the new dictionary. It would be an inventory of all the words ever written in English; it would trace the changing meaning of words rather than determining a "correct" meaning; it would be compiled by volunteers "drawing as with a sweep-net over the whole extent of English literature".

NONE OF THESE ideas was new - they all came from the Continent - but the enormous popularity of Trench's Study of Wordshad created a groundswell of enthusiasm for this immense collective task. The Oxford University Press took over the project in 1879, and between five and six million citation slips later, the Oxford English Dictionarywas finally completed in 1928.

So this is Trench's legacy to the world - one of the finest dictionaries ever produced and now one that underpins and reflects the growth of English as a global language. But what of his legacy to his family? Many of his descendants are, or have been, linguists, historians, writers or poets, but two of his grandchildren took his love of language in an unexpected direction.

Cesca Chenevix Trench and her cousin Samuel were both Irish nationalists who spoke Irish and were close to leading figures in the Gaelic League.

Cesca died of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 but left a diary that vividly records her experience of the Easter Rising. Samuel, also known as Dermot, gained another, less honourable immortality as Haines, the "ponderous Saxon" in Ulysses. Their political views might have been the polar opposite of their grandfather's, but their commitment to the Irish language was entirely consistent with his belief that a language was "the embodiment, the incarnation if I may so speak, of the feelings and thoughts and experiences of a nation".

Lucy Trench is the interpretation editor at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London