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Patrick Hanks, lexicographer who illuminated the history of rude words and surnames – obituary

Hanks: the 'harmless drudges' who compile dictionaries do not legislate on words, only report their usage
Hanks: the 'harmless drudges' who compile dictionaries do not legislate on words, only report their usage - Courtesy of family

Patrick Hanks, who has died aged 83, was a lexicographer, corpus linguist and onomastician, one who studies names; he edited the Collins English Dictionary (1979), shed light on the meaning of surnames on both sides of the Atlantic, and unearthed the history of rude words.

Hanks, a genial figure with the build of a rugby forward, discovered that the surname Daft, popular in Leicester, originally meant submissive, humble or gentle; that someone named Barrett might be a fraud; a Mallory was considered unlucky; and a Purcell was a little pig.

While most Bastards have changed their name over the centuries, a whole category remains of appellations given to children abandoned to orphanages. These include the French name Jette (meaning “thrown out”), the Italian Esposito (“exposed”), which is the fourth most popular surname in Italy, and the English Parrish, someone who was raised at the expense of the community.

He thought that Shakespeare was “probably an obscene name, originally for a masturbator”. He was, however, stumped by the etymology of Nimmo in Scotland and Clutterbuck in Gloucestershire.

Patrick Hanks
Patrick Hanks

Hanks enjoyed the ever-changing meaning of language. “Nice”, for instance, has historically meant both “wanton” and “abandoned”.

Slang is a particuarly fast-moving area. In the Collins Concise Dictionary (1988) he included “bonked” and “toyboy”, though omitted “bimbo”, adding: “We didn’t have enough evidence to warrant its inclusion.”

That dictionary drew criticism from the Daily Telegraph for embracing “the often-invigorating verbal innovations of our American and Antipodean cousins”. Among the least desirable words were “ankle-biter” (child) from Australia and “hooker” (prostitute) from America which, the paper added, “should still suggest first and foremost to English minds a position in the game of rugby”.

Channelling his inner Samuel Johnson, Hanks explained that “the harmless drudges” who compile dictionaries do not legislate which words become part of the language; that is something determined by its users. “The reporting of modern words and modern meanings in a dictionary does not ‘sanction’ them, any more than a report of a violent killing in your pages ‘sanctions’ the act of murder,” he responded.

He edited various Collins dictionaries
He edited various Collins dictionaries

To illustrate the difficulty of predicting which words will remain fashionable, he told of the 1950s dictionary editor who refused to include a certain word. “The word is a piece of slangy journalese,” said the editor. “It will not even last until the dictionary is published.” It was “brainwashed”.

At the turn of the century Hanks was alarmed to discover how promiscuous the prefix “euro” had become, noting that it was cosying up to words where it had no business at all. One amusing misuse was in the Journal of Gut Biology. “The correct word was urogenic, which means generating urine,” he said. “They had just written ‘eurogenic’.” His own work was inevitably not immune from typos. The blurb for the Collins Pocket English Dictionary proudly boasted that its editor lived “near the shores of Loch Lomand”.

Patrick Wyndham Hanks was born in Worcester on March 24 1940, the son of Wyndham Hanks and Elizabeth (née Rudd). He was educated at Ardingly College, West Sussex, and read English at University College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Richard Ingrams, founder of Private Eye and The Oldie.

His editing career began on the Hamlyn Encyclopedic World Dictionary (1971), a work that according to this paper was “notable for its comprehensiveness, the simplicity of its definitions and its remarkable cheapness [£4.95; equivalent to £59 today]”. He spent much of the next decade working on the Collins English Dictionary, which contained 1,728 pages, 162,000 entries and just about every four-letter word imaginable, plus a few that were not.

He explored the origins of 7,000 names from Aaltje to Zygmunt, though he was disturbed by the fashion for non-traditional names such as Blagnat, Flint or Kylie
He explored the origins of 7,000 names from Aaltje to Zygmunt, though he was disturbed by the fashion for non-traditional names such as Blagnat, Flint or Kylie

The moment he knew his work was worthwhile came during Coronation Street, when the characters began discussing the exact meaning of “condoned”. To his delight, they concluded that a new dictionary was needed.

In 1980 Hanks was appointed director of the Names Research Unit at the University of Essex, where he began a PhD; many years later he was awarded his doctorate by Masaryk University in Brno. He then joined a joint venture between the University of Birmingham and Collins, using computational linguistic techniques to create the Collins CoBuild English Language Dictionary (1987) that uses context to provide the definition of words.

His other work included A Dictionary of First Names (with Flavia Hodges, OUP, 1990), which explores the origins of 7,000 names from Aaltje to Zygmunt, though he was disturbed by the fashion for non-traditional names such as Blagnat, Flint or Kylie. “This is part of the decline of traditional values of church and state,” he declared when Tom, Dick and Harry were joined by Thessaly, Dove and Heaven in the second edition in 1997.

His three-volume Dictionary of American Family Names was published in 2003.

Hanks, who failed to recover from long covid, was twice married: to Helga Lietz in 1961 and Julie Eyre in 1979. Both marriages were dissolved. He had a son and a daughter from his first marriage and two daughters from his second.

Patrick Hanks, born March 24 1940, died February 1 2024