Liddell & Scott, A Little About Both

The standard dictionary of ancient Greek was first compiled by Henry Liddell and Robert Scott in the mid-19th century.  Their masterwork is in constant use by classicists, but who were the authors?

As you might suspect, both were prominent Oxford scholars and, in addition, Anglican prelates.  Scott was Master of Balliol College, while Liddell held the exalted posts of Dean of Christ Church and Vice-Chancellor of all of Oxford University.  Each was  involved in Oxford’s academic politics, naturally enough, and still more deeply involved in the religious tussles of their day, about which nobody cares at all anymore.  Sic transit gloria Sunday, hmm?  (Yet as I write this, I am aware that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Indianopolis, and debating important issues of gender.  A century from now, I suspect, people will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about).

Liddell is far better known today as the father of Alice Liddell, the subject of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (about which I will blog more later).  In his own time, Liddell was a highly respected individual, “an Olympian figure among men,” according to George Kitchin in Ruskin at Oxford (1900). “No man I have ever known was so well equipped with learning and capacity; none with so brave a grasp, so fair a judgment, so tolerant a spirit; none who ever so serenely bore with the impatiences, follies, impertinences of the young men, and resented none, forget them all. Liddell was like a noble ship under reefed sail in a stormy sea; he came through the waves with imposing speed and movement, fearing not the dints and breakages of the tempest, always sure of his end.”  Over an arch at Christ Church stands a statue of Liddell given in memory by some dedicated former students.

Scott was not so well-loved as Liddell.  According to John Jones’ Balliol College: A History from 1997, “But Scott was not a liberal man. He could always be relied upon to obstruct any measure threatening the slightest erosion of the Established Church’s position and privileges. His theology was uniformly orthodox, and he was opposed to any easing of the disabilities of Jews, Catholics, and Nonconformists. … The consistency with which he took the right-wing stance was almost matched by the regularity with which he found himself on the losing side, but he was always a gentleman, both in attack and defeat, and never lost his dignity.” One of Scott’s former students was Benjamin Jowett, the notable classicist, with whom he would later have many professional run-ins. Jowett would become Master of Balliol after Scott, but not without machinations.  In 1869, William Gladstone had asked Jowett whether there were any favors he required.  “I told him,” Jowett writes, “… the only thing he could for me was to make Scott a Dean or Bishop.”  Sure enough, Scott was made Dean of Rochester College and Jowett ascended to the Master’s chair.

There is a portrait of Scott in the hall at Balliol, but I haven’t gone to find it, though it can be seen on-line here.  On the wall of Balliol’s Master’s Lodgings, the building of which Scott oversaw, however, can be seen his coat of arms. (All the Scott family’s crests seem to feature the crescent and stars).  Most people who look at the Scott heraldic device these days are more interested in the plaque beneath it, which commemorates the spot nearby where Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer were burnt at the stake in 1556, over theological matters, as I am sure you know.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Emblems, Oxford, Statues & Monuments. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Liddell & Scott, A Little About Both

  1. Margaret Day says:

    This is fascinating! I’ve never really thought much about the authors of my beloved “little” Liddell, though I use it all the time. It makes me wonder about the authors of other academic texts I’ve read.

  2. coraxcorax says:

    nicely done. including the fact that you avoid the gaffe of calling it ‘christ church college,’ which they never do in oxford. but that’s just an aside — the main point to be made here is that you remind us of two men whose work continues to influence the work of every reader of greek, daily. thank you for that.

  3. Pingback: “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice | uncomelyandbroken

  4. Pingback: The revenge of the killer dictionary: the story of Liddell, Scott, and a disgruntled octopus – Hieroglyphs, Heroes, and Heretics

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