James Platt Jr (1861-1910) is a rather obscure figure in the history of Anglo-Saxon Studies. Undeservedly so. This guest blog by my student-assistant Amos van Baalen will discuss Platt’s tumultuous life, including his promising youth, subsequent plagiarism and his ultimate return to the ranks of respected scholars.
High hopes and harsh criticism: James Platt Jr arrives on the scene
“There are so few English Anglo-Saxon scholars that I shall not find it too hard to make a name among them,” James Platt Jr wrote in an introductory letter to Pieter Jacob Cosijn, a Dutch Professor of Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon. Despite his young age (he was only 21 at the time), Platt presents himself as a confident scholar; he had already read a number of papers at the prestigious Philological Society and one of his papers was due to be published in the Transactions of the Philological Society. This paper was a damning critique of Thomas Northcote Toller’s revision of Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1838):
“[T]he continuation of the work by Toller appears to be almost as bad as the commencement of it by Bosworth—and that is saying a great deal. … A thorough criticism it would be impossible to give—a re-writing of the whole book would be easier” (Platt 1882-1884, 237-238).
One particularly snide piece of criticism in his paper is a list containing 128 Old English words that could not be found in the first 32 pages of the dictionary, which serves to underline Platt’s general belief that the dictionary was wholly inadequate:
Platt’s hostile review was certainly noticed among the Philological Society (Bankert 2003, 306, notes that Platt’s paper was criticized, mostly for its form, not its contents). Harsh though the criticism was, Toller does seem to have taken some of Platt’s remarks to heart: the dictionary’s 1898 edition and (primarily) its 1921 supplement (which can be accessed online here) actually do contain around two-thirds of the words in the list shown above (although the entries are sometimes spelled differently).
Platt’s rise to philological prominence and his high hopes for his own career in Anglo-Saxon Studies would prove to be short-lived, however.
A Philologist’s Fall from Favour: Platt and Plagiarism
During the early 1880s, Platt received accusations of plagiarism. Three prominent scholars of Old English and Old Germanic languages were involved in these accusations: Pieter Jacob Cosijn, Henry Sweet and Eduard Sievers (see Bremmer 1991, xxi-xxiv). The correspondence between Platt and Cosijn (which can be found in the Leiden University Library) bears witness to how Platt operated. After introducing himself to Cosijn (see above), Platt asked him for specific information on historical linguistic matters. In one letter, he had asked Cosijn to send him Dutch words with the feminine agentive suffix -igge/-egge, such as Mod. D. dievegge ‘female thief’. Platt subsequently used the information provided by Cosijn in an article about Old English words with a similar suffix -icge (“Angelsächsisches,” Anglia 6 (1883): 171-78). Regrettably, Platt ‘forgot’ to attribute this information to Cosijn in the article itself. In Platt’s own words, this was because “[he] introduced the remarks about the igge words in Dutch at the last moment” and therefore “did not see [his] way clear to acknowledge it in [Cosijn’s] name without making a heavy alteration”; Platt had apparently been asked to “alter as little as possible as [his] was the last proof out” (letter to Cosijn, 29 January 1883).
It soon turned out that Cosijn was not the only victim of Platt’s malpractice. Noted philologist Henry Sweet (see: Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English) warned Cosijn for Platt in a letter dated 3 February 1883:
Dear Sir, I feel it is my duty to give you some words of warning about a countryman of mine, Mr. J. Platt. He is in the habit of introducing himself to scholars as a friend of mine, extracting information from them, and then publishing it as his own without a word of acknowledgment.
Apparently, Platt had also used information from Henry Sweet and Eduard Sievers (a famous German historical linguist) without permission. Platt’s case was brought before the Philological Society and, as a consequence, Platt received (in Sweet’s words – letter to Cosijn, 19 March 1883) “a severe vote of censure” from the Council.
Ashamed and shunned by the Philological Society, Platt turned away from philological scholarship and he never seems to have informed his family about the plagiarism case. In James Platt the Younger: A Study in the Personality of a Great Scholar (), a biography of Platt written by his younger brother William, there is no mention of the plagiarism case. William simply makes reference to “a distinct lull in his philological activities” following this period in his life (10). According to William, James was hoping to take part in revising Bosworth’s dictionary, which he had criticised so severely. However, “one evening [James] abruptly announced […] that he had given up all idea of it!”. William reports that James felt “[his] health would not stand such a long concentrated effort” (11). It is not unlikely to think that Platt’s “severe vote of censure” from the Philological Society was the actual reason that prevented him from doing any further work on the dictionary. Bremmer (1991) certainly seems to think so when he decisively states that “[the vote of censure] put an end to Platt’s Anglo-Saxonist career” (xxiv).From Philology to Fiction: James Platt the Writer
The period in Platt’s life following this incident is marked by no real scholarly activity. However, he seems to have been quite occupied by various creative exercises. His brother William mentions that James “started a manuscript periodical” to which he and his brothers contributed articles and stories (W. Platt , 11). More intriguingly, Platt published a book of six horror stories called “Tales of the Supernatural” in 1894. This book has been uploaded to archive.org and may be found here. His biography mentions that the book was reviewed very favourably, with one reviewer even going as far to speak of “the advent of a writer of no common order, and one who will have to be reckoned with before long by the imaginative writers of his age” (W. Platt , 15). It would seem, then, that Platt was certainly not any stuffy old scholar!
A Triumphant Return: Platt and the Oxford English Dictionary
It would not be long before his attention returned to more scholarly pursuits. In addition to publishing articles in various journals from the early 1890s onwards, his most significant contribution to scholarship in the later part of his life is arguably the assistance that he provided to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Platt’s biography (W. Platt , 16-18) relates that he got in contact with Dr James Murray, the legendary founding editor of the OED, after he (in true Platt style) published a critique on the information provided in the entry for the word he. Murray was pleased with the article and Platt offered to help him with the dictionary. Starting in 1899, Platt supplied the OED with etymological information for loanwords from lesser-known languages, including those spoken in Africa, America and Asia. His decision to tackle lesser-known languages was apparently motivated by the great number of experts who were already dealing with well-known languages (W. Platt , 18) (Platt’s biography is included on the OED’s website [tip: scroll down!]).
As a Dutchman, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Platt also contributed a number of articles to a Dutch weekly journal called Vragen en Mededeelingen [Questions and Notes] in January and early February of 1910. The journal published several of Platt’s articles (written in English) with such names as “Etymology of Toucan”, “Scottish ‘Z’ in Proper Names” and “The Pronunciation of ‘Gh’ in English”. Sadly, Platt would only be able to contribute for one month: he was just 49 years old when he died from “severe bronchial asthma” on 5 February 1910 (W. Platt , 23). Although he only contributed to Vragen en Mededeelingen for such a short period of time, he seems to have made quite an impact. The journal published a full-page obituary as the front page of the 18 February issue, in which it is stated that Platt’s death is “an irredeemable loss” (trans. from Dutch; Bense 1910, 73). Moreover, the editor writes the following concerning Platt’s qualities as a scholar: “We greatly fear that many a question will remain unanswered, because we do not believe he had an equal in terms of his knowledge of generally lesser-known languages” (trans.; Bense 1910, 73). This sentiment was apparently reflected in more than forty other obituaries in various publications, which likewise constituted “fine tributes to his scholarship” (W. Platt , 24).
It is clear, then, that James Platt’s youthful plagiarism did not permanently blemish his name. He ended up being a well-respected scholar who provided highly valued academic contributions during his, admittedly short, but fruitful life. It is hard to imagine why he is not more famous, seeing as he was praised by so many at the end of his life. I hope this blog post will in some way remedy his current obscurity.
This guest blog by my student-assistant Amos van Baalen is part of the project Pieter Jakob Cosijn’s Correspondence and Scholarly Collaboration at the End of the Nineteenth Century. On the 17th of November 2017, we are organising a conference on “Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature’ at Leiden University; see the call-for-papers (deadline 31st of August, 2017) for more information.
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Richard Morris: The Man Who Popularized Early English
- Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
- Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English
Works referred to:
- Bense, J. F. “James Platt, jun.” Vragen en Mededeelingen. 1.1.7 (1910): 73.
- Bankert, Dabney Anderson. “T. Northcote Toller and the Making of the Supplement to the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.” In: Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England: Thomas Northcote Toller and the Toller Memorial Lectures, ed. Donald Scragg. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003. 301-322.
- Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr “Pieter Jakob Cosijn (1840-1899): A Dutch Anglo-Saxonist in the Late Nineteenth Century.” In: Notes on Beowulf. By Pieter Jacob Cosijn, eds. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Jan van den Berg and David F. Johnson. Leeds: Leeds Studies in English, 1991. xi-xxxvi.
- Platt, James, Jr. “The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.” Transactions of the Philological Society, 1882-4: Part 2 (1883), 237-246.
- Platt, William. James Platt the Younger: A Study in the Personality of a Great Scholar. London: Simpkin Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., .