Dr Bill Ramson, the editor of the Australian National Dictionary (1988), and first director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University, sadly passed away in Sydney on 5 October.
William (‘Bill’) Stanley Ramson was born in New Zealand in 1933 and graduated from Victoria University of Wellington. He came to Australia in 1955. His doctorate on nineteenth-century Australian English was the first PhD in English conferred by the University of Sydney. He taught in the English department at the Australian National University from 1961, and his research interests included Scottish medieval and renaissance literature as well as Australian English. His expertise in the historical development of Australian English was evident in the publication in 1966 of his book Australian English: An Historical Study of the Vocabulary 1788–1898. From 1975 to 1981 he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at ANU.
In the 1970s Bill was one of the instigators of a project to compile the first Australian general dictionary, and this resulted in the publication of the Macquarie Dictionary in 1981, of which Bill was a founding editor. In the late 1970s, his lexicographical interest shifted from the ‘general dictionary’ to the ‘dictionary based on historical principles’. This was also the time that he began his long association with the Oxford English Dictionary project as a consultant on Australian English. In 1978 Bill began the research that would produce one of the truly great Australian academic publications—the Australian National Dictionary. He established a reading program to collect data for a dictionary of Australianisms based on historical principles, using the methodology that produced the Oxford English Dictionary. The Australian National Dictionary was published in 1988 by Oxford University Press. It records the historical development of some 10,000 Australian words and phrases from their earliest use to the present day, providing evidence of this history in some 60,000 dated and referenced quotations drawn from over 9,000 Australian sources. It is an extraordinary and enduring landmark of Australian scholarship.
The significance of the Australian National Dictionary project and its archive of Australian English was recognised by the Australian National University and Oxford University Press with the creation of the Australian National Dictionary Centre in 1988. This Centre has continued Bill’s pioneering research on the historical development of Australian words, has published research dealing with many areas of the Australian lexicon (including regional Australian Englishes, Aboriginal English, Australian Aboriginal words in English, and thematic areas such as words of the convict era, the terminology of the gold rushes, and war words), and edits a range of Australian dictionaries for Oxford University Press Australia. Bill Ramson was the first director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, a position he held until his retirement in 1994. In 1995 he was awarded an AM for service to the study of Australian language and the establishment of the Australian National Dictionary Centre. In retirement, he continued his lexicographical interests, and in 2002 published Lexical Images: The Story of the Australian National Dictionary.
The book Lexical Images provides some very personal insights into the creation of the Australian National Dictionary, and it spells out Bill’s conclusions about the most significant ‘shaping’ forces in the development of the Australian vocabulary. Bill would always claim, of course, that it is the dictionary itself that primarily gives voice to the story of the development of Australian words. Those who use the dictionary also know that Bill’s own voice is very much at its core.
He will be sadly missed by his many friends and followers.