Robert William Burchfield CNZM, CBE (27 January 1923 – 5 July 2004) was a lexicographer, scholar, and writer, who edited the Oxford English Dictionary for thirty years to 1986, and was Chief Editor from 1971.
Born in Wanganui, New Zealand, he studied at Wanganui Technical College and Victoria University in Wellington. After war service in the Royal New Zealand Artillery, he graduated MA from Wellington in 1948 and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford University, in England, where he was tutored by C.S. Lewis. He became a Fellow of Magdalen and lecturer in English straight after graduating (1952-3), subsequently moving colleges to Christ Church (1953–57) and St Peter's (1955–79). Through C. T. Onions, then Magdalen librarian, he assisted in editing one of Onions’s projects, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. His preparation of an edition of the Ormulum was supervised by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Onions recommended him to Dan Davin as editor of the second Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, which he worked on from 1957 to 1986. He re-established the network of volunteer readers sending in records of words which had helped to create the original OED, and had then been allowed to fall away. In 2004 it emerged that Burchfield's second supplement had removed a large number of words which were present in the earlier 1933 supplement edited by Onions and William Craigie, which Burchfield's second supplement incorporated. Four years later the full nature of his treatment of foreign words was shown: he reinstated a symbol called ‘tramlines’ to mark foreign words as ‘alien or not yet naturalized’; he deleted 17% of the foreign loan words and words from regional forms of English; and his coverage was not as extensive as his predecessors, especially Charles Onions who included 45% more loanwords and World Englishes. In 2012, a book documented Burchfield’s work and showed that many of these omitted words had only a single recorded usage, but their removal ran against what was thought to be the established OED editorial practice, and a perception that he had opened up the dictionary to 'World English'. The author of the book concerned, Sarah Ogilvie, complained that people were unfairly judging Burchfield and that her coverage had been misleadingly reported in the media.
In retirement he produced a controversial new edition, substantially rewritten and less prescriptivist, of Fowler's Modern English Usage, the long established style guide by Henry Watson Fowler. He died in Abingdon at age 81 in 2004. He married twice and had three children.
- Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, 4 vols, 1972–1986
- The Spoken Word, 1981
- The English Language, 1985
- Studies in Lexicography, 1987
- Unlocking the English Language, 1991
- Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 5: English in Britain and Overseas, 1994
- (ed.) Fowler's Modern English Usage, 1998
- Sarah Ogilvie, "From Outlandish Words to World English: the legitimization of global varieties of English in the OED", Euralex Conference, Lorient, France, July, 2004]
- Sarah Ogilvie, "Rethinking Burchfield and World Englishes" International Journal of Lexicography, 21: 23-59, 2008
- Sarah Ogilvie, "Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary", ISBN 1107605695 Cambridge University Press, 2013
- Leslie Kaufmann, "Dictionary Dust-Up (Danchi Is Involved)", The New York Times, 28 November 2012
- Alison Flood "Former OED editor covertly deleted thousand of words, book claims", The Guardian, 27 November 2012
- The Guardian books blog, 27 November 2012, Sarah Ogilvie "Focusing on the OED's missing words is missing the point"
- Huffington Post books blog, 29 November 2012, Sarah Ogilvie "The OED, A Truly Global Dictionary"
- "OED/Independent":Oxford English Dictionary website entry for Robert Burchfield, including The Independent's obituary