Walter William Skeat

Skeat at his writing desk, no later than 1895
Personal details
Born21 November 1835
London, England
Died6 October 1912 (aged 76)
Cambridge, England
Bertha Clara
(m. 1860)
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge
SignatureWalter William Skeat's signature

Walter William Skeat, FBA (21 November 1835 – 6 October 1912) was a British philologist and Anglican deacon. The pre-eminent British philologist of his time, he was instrumental in developing the English language as a higher education subject in the United Kingdom.


Skeat was born in London[1] to architect William Skeat, of Perry Hill, Sydenham,[2] later of Mount Street, Park Lane, City of Westminster, and his wife Sarah, daughter of Timothy Bluck. The Skeat family were a branch of an ancient Surrey family, and were resident in the parish of St George Hanover Square since the 1700s.[3][4] He was educated at King's College School (Wimbledon), Highgate School, and Christ's College, Cambridge. He became a fellow at Christ's College in July 1860.[5]

In 1860 Skeat was ordained an Anglican deacon and married Bertha Clara. In December 1860, he became a curate at East Dereham, where he served during 1861 and most of 1862. From 1862 to 1863, Skeat served as the curate at Godalming, Surrey. In October 1864, he returned to Cambridge University as a mathematics lecturer, a position he held until 1871.

Skeat soon developed an interest in the history of the English language. In 1870, Skeat and Henry Bradshaw collaborated on an edition of Geoffrey Chaucer for the University of Oxford. However, the project fell through when Bradshaw failed to keep his commitment. In 1894, Skeat published a six-volume edition of Chaucer; a supplementary volume, Chaucerian Pieces, was published in 1897.[6]

In 1878 Skeat was elected the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge. He completed Mitchell Kemble's edition of the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, and did work both in Old English and the Gothic language. Skeat is best known for his work in Middle English, and for his standard editions of Chaucer and William Langland's Piers Plowman.[7]

Skeat was the founder and only president of the English Dialect Society from 1873 to 1896.[8] The society's purpose was to collect materials for the publication of The English Dialect Dictionary. The society was dissolved in 1897.[9]

Skeat is buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.[citation needed]

Skeat's wife, Bertha Clara, born 6 February 1840, died 15 July 1924, is buried with him, as is a daughter Bertha Marian Skeat who was a writer and headmistress.[10] His son was the anthropologist Walter William Skeat. His grandsons include the noted palaeographer T. C. Skeat and the stained glass painter Francis Skeat.[11]


Etymology, lexicography, and place-name studies

In pure philology, Skeat's principal achievement was his An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (4 parts, 1879–1882; rev., and enlarged, 1910).[7] While preparing the dictionary, he wrote hundreds of short articles on word origins for the London-based journal Notes and Queries.

Skeat also coined the term ghost word and was a leading expert in this subject.[12] Skeat was also a pioneer of place-name studies. His major publications in this field include:


Skeat edited works for the Early English Text Society:

For the Scottish Text Society:

Skeat produced what is still the main edition of Ælfric of Eynsham's Lives of the Saints;[15] the edition includes translations which were largely the work of two women referred to as Mss Gunning and Wilkinson, who were credited in the preface to his edition.[16]


According to A. J. Wyatt, Skeat "was not a great teacher ... he left the teaching to those who had learned from him" – i.e. Wyatt himself and Israel Gollancz – "his teaching was episodic. Yet his lectures were eagerly followed by the fit though few; they were always interesting when least utilitarian, when he forgot examinations and syllabuses, and poured forth from the quaint storehouse of his motley memory things new and old."[17]

Skeat's pedagogical works include:

International relations

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, Skeat regarded Geoffrey Chaucer and other medieval English authors as part of his national heritage and objected to German scholars publishing works on them. At one point, Skeat exclaimed that even though he was " some extent disqualified, as being merely a native of London, in which city Chaucer himself was born," he should be able to contribute scholarship on Chaucer without perceived German interference.[19]


  1. ^ Skeat's anthropologist son has the same name as his father.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Interpreters of Early Medieval Britain, ed. Michael Lapidge, Oxford University Press (on behalf of the British Academy), 2002, p. 37
  3. ^ Sisam, Kenneth (2004). "Skeat, Walter William (1835–1912), philologist". In Brewer, Charlotte (ed.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36116. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ History of the families of Skeet, Somerscales, Widdrington, Wilby, Murray, Blake, Grimshaw, and others, 'by a connection of the same', Mitchell, Hughes & Clarke (London), 1906, pp. 57–58
  5. ^ "Skeat, Walter William (SKT854WW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  7. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Skeat, Walter William". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 168–169.
  8. ^ "Skeat, Rev. William Walter". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. pp. 1615–1616.
  9. ^ Buckingham, James Silk; Sterling, John; Maurice, Frederick Denison; Stebbing, Henry; Dilke, Charles Wentworth; Hervey, Thomas Kibble; Dixon, William Hepworth; MacColl, Norman; Rendall, Vernon Horace; Murry, John Middleton (27 March 1897). "English Philology". The Athenaeum. No. 3622. pp. 413–414.
  10. ^ Kenneth Sisam, "Skeat, Walter William (1835–1912)", rev. Charlotte Brewer, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 accessed 23 Feb 2017
  11. ^ "History of the Windows of Saint Peter, St Albans". St Peter's Church. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 26 December 2010.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer, A treatise on the astrolabe addressed to his son Lowys by Geoffrey Chaucer, A.D. 1391, edited from the earliest MSS, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, Early English Text Society, Extra Series, 16 (London: Trübner, 1872).
  14. ^ The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. by Walter W. Skeat (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894–1897).
  15. ^ Ælfric's Lives of Saints: Being a Set of Sermons on Saints' Days Formerly Observed by the English Church, Edited from Manuscript Julius E. VII in the Cottonian Collection, with Various Readings from Other Manuscripts, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, Early English Text Society, Original Series, 76, 82, 94, 114, 2 vols (London: Trübner, 1881–1900).
  16. ^ Maude, Kathryn (2014). "Citation and Marginalisation: The Ethics of Feminism in Medieval Studies" (PDF). Journal of Gender Studies. 23 (3): 1–15 [8]. doi:10.1080/09589236.2014.909719. S2CID 145600388.
  17. ^ Obituary of Skeat in The Cambridge Review, 34 (1912), 15, cited by Michael Lapidge, 'Introduction: The Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, 1878—1999', in H. M. Chadwick and the Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, ed. by Michael Lapidge (Aberystwyth: CMCS Publications, 2015) [=Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 69/70 (2015)], pp. 1—58 (p. 12 n. 44).
  18. ^ "Review of Principles of English Etymology by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat". The Athenæum (3120): 206–207. 13 August 1887.
  19. ^ 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.