The research of the lexicographer Allen Walker Read often produced controversial results, but he was widely respected and dealt with all manner of questions about words in an engaging scholarly spirit. He had an impressive breadth of knowledge, and particularly liked to build bridges between Britain and the United States.
As one of the forerunners of “dictionary research” (or “metalexicography”), he spoke at conferences with authority, modesty, and wit about competing lexicographic traditions, or so-called “dictionary wars”.
He was exceedingly curious about words: where they come from (etymology), what they mean (semantics), how they are formed (lexicology), how they are treated in dictionaries (lexicography), how they relate to place names (onomastics), and how they vary from one social and regional variety to another (sociolinguistics and dialectology).
More than that, he wanted to know how people use words in real situations for various purposes: to amuse themselves (graffiti), to be technical or informal (jargon and slang), to offend (taboo), and to mollify (euphemism).
The vocabulary he investigated included expressions such as “the almighty dollar”, words such as “blizzard”, and names such as Dixie, Rocky Mountains, and Podunk. Most famously of all, he traced “OK” back to The Boston Morning Post of 1839, at a time when there was a fad for abbreviations, much as there is today, but preferably rather facetious. OK stood for “oll korrect”.
Born in 1906 in Winnebago, Minnesota, Allen Walker Read was the son of Orlan Bertrand Read, who taught chemistry at the Iowa State Teachers College from 1913 through 1940. Allan Walker Read studied at the Iowa State Teachers College, the University of Iowa, the University of Missouri, Oxford University (as a Rhodes Scholar, 1928-31), and the University of Chicago, where William Craigie invited him to assist with the Dictionary of American English between 1932 and 1938. A Guggenheim fellowship then allowed Read to work at the British Museum in London (1938-41), where he started a Dictionary of Briticisms. During the Second World War he was asked to compile a dictionary of military terms and to do linguistic research for the Army.
From 1945 until his retirement in 1974, Read held a chair at Columbia University, New York. There he could take a critical stance on usage and dictionaries, defending what he thought was good (such as Philip Gove’s edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1961), but also showing up shoddy workmanship in some other compilations.
Read published more than three hundred papers, twenty-six of which were collected in America: Naming the Country and Its People (2001) and a further twenty in Milestones in the History of English in America (2002).
He also edited the journal American Speech, contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and acted as a consultant to a number of American dictionaries, such as Funk & Wagnall’s, the American College Dictionary and Random House. His incomplete Dictionary of Briticisms is being completed and prepared for publication by John Algeo.
Read was a founding member (and later president) of the Dictionary Society of North America, president of the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, president of the American Dialect Society and president of the New York Society of General Semantics. Among the numerous honours conferred upon him was an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.
Allen Walker Read married Charlotte Schuchardt in 1953. She died in July 2002. They had no children.
Allen Walker Read died on October 16, 2002, aged 96.
Edited by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson from an article in the Online Times, November 8, 2002; article accessed January 27, 2010.