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Partridge, Eric Honeywood (1894–1979)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Eric Honeywood Partridge (1894-1979), lexicographer, writer and soldier, was born on 6 February 1894 in the Waimata valley, near Gisborne, New Zealand, eldest of four sons of John Thomas Partridge, sheepfarmer, and his wife Ethel Annabella, née Norris. Eric's father introduced him when 7 to the use of a dictionary and encouraged him to write stories. In 1907 the family moved to a wheat-farm on the Darling Downs, Queensland, and Eric attended Toowoomba Grammar School in 1907-10. He taught for three years, then won a scholarship to the new university. Having already published a pamphlet of translations of French poetry, he began honours in classics in 1914.

Partridge enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 23 April 1915, embarked with the 26th Battalion on 25 May, and served on Gallipoli from early September until evacuated with jaundice and paratyphoid. Sent to France in May 1916, he was wounded at Pozières and did not rejoin the battalion until March 1917. Refusing promotion, after Bullecourt he was transferred to the 7th Brigade observers from which after twelve months he entered hospital with trench fever. He embarked for home in December 1918 and was discharged next April.

Throughout he had managed to read omnivorously in serious literature and to write poems, stories and accounts of battle, some of which were published in Queensland University Magazine. He eventually himself published 'Frank Honywood, Private', as part of Three Personal Records of the War (London, 1929), which ranks as a minor classic of war literature. He was concerned to commemorate his mate Corporal Howard Phillips who had died at Mont St Quentin, to attempt to describe the terrible battle of Pozières, to expose himself as an example of a soldier broken but somehow carrying on under appalling stress, and to write the war out of his system. Incidentally he had much illuminating to say about the men of the A.I.F. and his autobiography of one intellectual, 'sensitive' infantryman stands as a much-needed modification of vulgar notions of the Australian soldier.

Returning to the University of Queensland (B.A., 1921; M.A., 1923) Partridge switched to modern languages (French and English). He revered several of his teachers including Professors J. L. Michie and J. J. Stable. His university friends included Herbert Burton, P. R. Stephensen and Jack Lindsay. Graduating with first-class honours, Partridge was awarded the university travelling scholarship which he took up at Oxford (B.Litt., 1923). He returned briefly to Queensland in 1924, then lectured in English literature in 1925-27 at the universities of Manchester and London. He said he was 'almost the world's worst lecturer', but the novelist Anthony Burgess has remarked that 'he spoke the finest classless English of his generation'.

Partridge was determined to pursue a career as a man of letters and in 1927 launched the Scholartis Press. In three years he published about sixty books, some of them reprints in limited editions of works out of print, but also new general books and fiction by young writers. Lindsay and Stephensen, with whom he had made Queensland University Magazine an astonishingly good student journal, were also active as fine-publishers in London in the late 1920s. The Depression effectively closed the Scholartis Press.

Meanwhile Partridge had found his life's work when (with Eric Brophy) he published Songs and Slang of the British Soldier 1914-18 (1930), then reissued with commentary Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1931). His interest in language went back to childhood and had been quickened by experience in the A.I.F. His major work, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), constantly added to and revised, was republished posthumously in its eighth edition in 1984. But his output was enormously varied, an astonishing body of work—he wrote, compiled or edited more than seventy works, including a collection of short stories under the pseudonym 'Corrie Denison' and at least one novel. Other major dictionaries were A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958), and A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977). There were also A Dictionary of Clichés (1940, five editions), Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1942, six editions) and Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947, four editions). Based on the British Museum library and the Savile Club, the great 'word-man' managed to live by his scholarly pen; World War II, when he worked in army education, was an interlude.

Partridge was 'a quietly spoken, easy, friendly person, extremely modest in manner'. He was a fan of cricket and tennis. He received or accepted no British honour, but in the 1970s the University of Queensland awarded him an honorary D.Litt. and the Australian Academy of the Humanities elected him an honorary fellow. He died at Moretonhampstead, Devon, on 1 June 1979, predeceased by his wife Agnes Dora, née Vye-Parminter, whom he had married on 24 December 1925; their daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Crystal (ed), Eric Partridge in His Own Words (Lond, 1980) and for list of writings
  • G. Serle, Introduction to Frank Honywood, Private (Melb, 1987)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, no 1, 1964, no 3, 1972, no 2, 1974.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Partridge, Eric Honeywood (1894–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/partridge-eric-honeywood-7969/text13877, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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