Walter William Skeat  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Walter William Skeat (21 November 1835 – 1912), English philologist, was born in London on the 21st of November 1835, and educated at King's College School (Wimbledon), Highgate School, and Christ's College, Cambridge, of which he became a fellow in July 1860. The noted palaeographer T. C. Skeat was his grandson.


In 1878 he was elected Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge. He completed Mitchell Kemble's edition of the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, and did much other work both in Anglo-Saxon and in Gothic, but is perhaps most generally known for his labours in Middle English, and for his standard editions of Chaucer and Langland's Piers Plowman.

As he himself generously declared, he was at first mainly guided in the study of Chaucer by Henry Bradshaw, with whom he was to have participated in the edition of Chaucer planned in 1870 by the University of Oxford, having declined in Bradshaw's favour an offer of the editorship made to himself. Bradshaw's perseverance was not equal to his genius, and the scheme came to nothing for the time, but was eventually resumed and carried into effect by Skeat in an edition of six volumes (1894), a supplementary volume of Chaucerian Pieces being published in 1897. He also issued an edition of Chaucer in one volume for general readers, and a separate edition of his Treatise on the Astrolabe, with a learned commentary.

His edition of Piers Plowman in three parallel texts was published in 1886; and, besides the Treatise on the Astrolabe, he edited numerous books for the Early English Text Society, including the Bruce of John Barbour, Pierce the Ploughman's Crede, the romances of Havelok the Dane and William of Palerne, and Ælfric's Lives of the Saints (4 vols.). For the Scottish Text Society he edited The Kingis Quair, usually ascribed to James I of Scotland, and he published an edition (2 vols., 1871) of Chatterton, with an investigation of the sources of the obsolete words employed by him.

He is buried at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge.


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

His other works include:

  • The Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian, and Old Mercian Versions (1871)
  • Specimens of English from 1394 to 1597 (1871)
  • Specimens of Early English from 1298 to 1393 (1872), in conjunction with Richard Morris
  • Principles of English Etymology (2 series, 1887 and 1891)
  • A Concise Dictionary of Middle English (1888), in conjunction with A. L. Mayhew
  • A Student's Pastime (1896), a volume of essays
  • The Chaucer Canon (1900)
  • A Primer of Classical and English Philology (1905)
  • "A Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words" (1914) with A.L. Mayhew

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