Charles Talbut Onions (1873–1965) was born in Birmingham, England, and was educated at King Edward VI School and Mason College, Birmingham. In 1905 he was invited by James Murray to join the staff of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles at Oxford and he was to live at Oxford for the rest of his life. He initially worked under the supervision of Henry Bradley and W.A. Craigie and in 1913 began independent editorial work on some of the later sections of the Dictionary, which was completed in 1928. In 1922 he was commissioned to revise and complete the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. It was published in 1933 and he continued to revise and augment it until 1959. His magnum opus was theOxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966).
Onions became a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1923 and was the College librarian from 1940 to 1955. He was president of the Philological Society (1929–33), director of the Early English Text Society, and editor of Medium Aevum(1932–56). Among his other publications were An Advanced English Syntax (1904),A Shakespeare Glossary (1911), Shakespeare’s England (1916) and An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse (1922).
The Onions Collection was purchased from the family of Onions in 1966. Further items were acquired from G.B. Onions, the son of Onions, in 1970 and 1973.
The Onions Collection contains 3099 books and pamphlets, and also a number of journals and modern facsimile editions of medieval manuscripts. The great strength of the collection is English philology, including English dialects. There are also many books on Greek and Roman literature, Anglo-Saxon literature, Old English, English poetry and novels, French literature, German literature, literary criticism, English grammar, English history, religion and botany.
About 130 of the books were published before 1800. The following are examples of rare imprints held in the collection:
Bacon, Francis, New Atlantis, [London, 1628]
Burnet, Gilbert, A Discourse of the Pastoral Care, London, 1692
Euripides. Scholia in septem tragoedias, Amsterdam, 1544
Fielding, Henry, History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, [London], n.d.
Gray, Thomas, Poems by Mr Gray, London, 1788
Grose, Francis, Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785
Harris, James, Hermes: A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Language and Universal Grammar, London, 1751
Pascal, Blaise, Provinciales, Francfort, 1716
Peryn, William, The Godley and Notable Sermons, London, 1548
Philips, Ambrose, Pastorals, London, 1710
Rider, John, Riders Dictionarie as it was Heretofore Corrected, London, 1626
Shaftesbury, Anthony, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, London, 1727
Sparrow, A., A Rationale upon the Book of Common Prayer, 1676
Vossius, Gerard, Latina Grammatica, Amsterdam, 1639.
Manuscripts and Personal Papers
The papers of Onions consist of research materials for dictionaries and other books, manuscripts and galley proofs, undergraduate notebooks, correspondence, circulars, committee papers, newspaper cuttings and Onions’ copies of various dictionaries. There is a considerable quantity of slips that formed the basis of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology and other books. The correspondence extends from 1921 to 1964 and includes many letters from R.W. Burchfield, Kenneth Sisam, D.M. Davin, Henry Fowler, R.W. Chambers and other staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. There are also photocopies of letters, dating from 1903–48 to Onions from eminent writers such as Sir James Murray, George Bernard Shaw, John Buchan, Hilaire Belloc, John Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling and Dorothy L. Sayers.
The largest group of papers relate to the journal Medium Aevum and comprise letters from the publisher Basil Blackwell, letters from contributors, draft articles and proofs. They extend from the establishment of the journal in 1932 until 1956.
The bulk of the books in the Onions Collection have been integrated in the general collection. They have been individually catalogued. A manuscript listing of the titles is available. The oldest and rarest works, consisting of 113 titles, are kept together as a collection within the Rare Books Collection. Their call numbers have the prefix RB ONI. The manuscripts and personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 2089. They occupy 37 boxes. A finding aid is available online.
Sets of journals in the Onions Collection that were already held in the Library were transferred to Flinders University Library in 1968.
Bennett, J.A.W., Charles Talbut Onions, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 41, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, pp. 871–2.
A List of the Published Writings of Charles Talbut Onions, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1948.
Obituary of C.T. Onions, The Times (London), 12 January 1965, p. 11.