Walter William Skeat

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Walter William Skeat.

Walter William Skeat (21 November 1835 – 6 October 1912), FBA English philologist, was born in London and educated at King's College School (Wimbledon), Highgate School, and Christ's College, Cambridge, of which he became a fellow in July 1860.[1] His son was the anthropologist Walter William Skeat. His grandsons include the noted palaeographer T. C. Skeat and the stained glass painter Francis Skeat.[2]


In 1860 Skeat was ordained an Anglican deacon, married, and became a curate in December 1860 at East Dereham, where he served during the year 1861 and most of 1862. In 1862–1863 he was a curate at Godalming. In October 1864 he returned to Cambridge as a mathematical lecturer, remaining in this capacity until 1871.

In 1878 he was elected Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge. He completed Mitchell Kemble's edition of the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, and did much other work both in Anglo-Saxon and in Gothic, but is perhaps most generally known for his labours in Middle English, and for his standard editions of Chaucer and William Langland's Piers Plowman.

As he himself declared, he was at first mainly guided in the study of Chaucer by Henry Bradshaw, with whom he was to have participated in the edition of Chaucer planned in 1870 by the University of Oxford, having declined in Bradshaw's favour an offer of the editorship made to himself. Bradshaw's perseverance was not equal to his genius, and the scheme came to nothing for the time, but was eventually resumed and carried into effect by Skeat in an edition of six volumes (1894), a supplementary volume of Chaucerian Pieces being published in 1897. He also issued an edition of Chaucer in one volume for general readers, and a separate edition of his Treatise on the Astrolabe, with a learned commentary.

His edition of Piers Plowman in three parallel texts was published in 1886; and, besides the Treatise on the Astrolabe, he edited numerous books for the Early English Text Society, including the Bruce of John Barbour, "Pierce the Ploughman's Crede", the romances of Havelok the Dane and William of Palerne, and Ælfric's Lives of the Saints (4 vols.). For the Scottish Text Society he edited The Kingis Quair, usually ascribed to James I of Scotland, and he published an edition (2 vols., 1871) of Chatterton, with an investigation of the sources of the obsolete words employed by him.

He is buried at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge; his wife, Bertha Clara, was born 6 February 1840, died 15 July 1924 is buried with him, as is a daughter Bertha Marion, born 30 December 1861, died 2 December 1948.


Skeat was the founder and only president of the English Dialect Society from 1873 to 1896.[3] The society's purpose was to collect materials for the publication of the English Dialect Dictionary; the purpose of the society having been achieved, it was dissolved in 1897.[4]

In pure philology, Skeat's principal achievement is his Etymological English Dictionary (4 parts, 1879–1882; rev., and enlarged, 1910). While preparing the dictionary he wrote hundreds of short articles on word origins for the London-based journal Notes and Queries. Skeat was also a pioneer of place-name studies.

His other works include:

Skeat also coined the term ghost word and was a leading expert in this treacherous and difficult subject.[5]

International relations[edit]

Skeat was one of the very few scholars in English studies who had sufficient expertise to compete with the state-employed and tenured colleagues from German universities. Like Henry Sweet, he regarded Geoffrey Chaucer and other medieval English authors as part of his national heritage and objected to the numerous German professors' incursions into English textual territory. Frustrated by the successes of his German counterparts, he exclaimed, sarcastically, that though perhaps "to some extent disqualified, as being merely a native of London, in which city Chaucer himself was born," he should be allowed to contribute scholarship on the father of English poetry without constant German interference.[6]


  1. ^ "Skeat, Walter William (SKT854WW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ "History of the Windows of Saint Peter, St Albans". St Peter's Church. Retrieved 26 December 2010. 
  3. ^ "Skeat, Rev. William Walter". Who's Who, 59: pp. 1615–1616. 1907. 
  4. ^ "English Philology". The Athenaeum (No. 3622): 413–414. 27 March 1897. 
  5. ^ Skeat, Walter William; Presidential address on 'Ghost-Words' in: Transactions of the Philological Society, 1885–87, pp. 350–373; Published for the society by Trübner & Co., Ludgate Hill, London, 1887.
  6. ^ Chaucer. The Minor Poems, ed. Walter W. Skeat (Oxford, 1888), p vii. See further Richard Utz, Chaucer and the Discourse of German Philology (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002), pp. 67–69.

External links[edit]