Chance find at the bottom of box reveals Jed wordsman’s legacy

George Watson, Esq., M.A., Oxon. Assistant Professor, University of Chicago.
George Watson, Esq., M.A., Oxon. Assistant Professor, University of Chicago.
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Forgotten articles on the history of Jedburgh’s place names have been republished by the Jedforest Historical Society, following their discovery at the bottom of a box in an antique shop.

Jedburgh Place Names, compiled by local historian Norrie McLeish, is based on the research of lexicographer and self-taught scholar George Watson, who rose from the town’s poor school to co-write the Oxford English Dictionary. The research was originally published in The Jedburgh Gazette in 1924.

“The oldest words handed down from age to age in our country are those preserved in place names,” Mr McLeish writes. “A close study of the linguistic derivations of place names can help provide a picture of the changing history of our valley.”

Jed’s Lowland Scots language reveals its rich history of Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen, and Welsh or Gaelic-speaking Celts.

Eighty-one spellings of Jedburgh are recorded, with the first element fairly constant as ‘Ged, Jedde, Chede, Jode, Gude’ – a name possibly bestowed on the river by the ancient Brython tribe, or ‘Britons’. But Watson argues the ‘J’ sound is a Norman-French introduction.

“Doubtless the river was called Yed in earlier times. Selkirkshire has preserved the initial soft sound in Yarrow, while Tyneside has palatalised it in Jarrow.”

Watson’s story is as remarkable as the history of Jedburgh’s place names. George Marr Watson was born in 1876 into the town’s poorest area, the Castlegate, and was educated in the Royal Burgh’s Sessional School, which was founded to provide an education for the destitute.

Yet something sparked off a lifelong interest in language and history within this ‘lad o’ pairts’, and by the end of his life in 1950 Watson had chalked up an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University and an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago, during the years of prohibition and Al Capone. In 1907 he began compiling the letter ‘U’ for the monumental Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first edited in 1888 by his fellow Borderer the Denholm-born Sir James A. H. Murray, and became the trusted senior assistant to the OED’s third editor, the Oxford Professor of Philology William A. Craigie.

While fighting for the Devonshire Regiment in the trenches of France during the First World War, Watson was spotted in a captured German dugout correcting Professor Craigie’s proofs with a pencil in one hand and a candle in the other. The candle had to be blown out every few minutes for fear of attracting enemy fire.

After the war, the etymologist published The Roxburghshire Word Book, the classic work on the vernacular vocabulary of his native county, and, with Prof. Craigie, A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, and the Dictionary of American English. Watson was also asked to edit the Scottish National Dictionary and was one of the ‘nearly men’ who almost became an editor of the OED.

Visiting his hometown in 1933, Watson was congratulated by the Jedburgh Callants’ Club: “While the foundation of his learning was laid in Jedburgh, he has, in the main, been self-taught, the architect of his own fortunes.”

Watson replied that, throughout all his wanderings, his mind and heart was always in Jedburgh.

In the book, Mr McLeish revealed the amazing story of how Watson’s articles on Jedburgh came into his hands by accident, in an envelope of yellowed newspaper cuttings buried at the bottom of a box of old papers bought from a Moffat antique shop.

“There’s been nothing better written on Jedburgh’s place names,” he added: “George Watson is up there with the town’s other greats, such as David Brewster, James Veitch and Mary Somerville.

“If it weren’t for this chance find, Watson’s work would not have seen the light of day. The Jedforest Historical Society is proud that it has been able to draw a wider audience to the work of George Watson, who worked so hard to increase our awareness of this ancient burgh’s long history.”

The book is available from local shops in Jedburgh.