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Reference: NLW MS 13248i-iiB

His life

Pughe was born, the son of a farmer, in the parish of Llanfihangel y Pennant, Meirionnydd, in 1759. He was known as William Owen before he adopted the surname Owen Pughe in 1806. During his youth he developed a passionate interest in Welsh literature, an interest which was further stimulated by his reading of Rhys Jones’s famous anthology Gorchestion Beirdd Cymru (1773), (The Masterpieces of the Welsh Poets).

In 1776 Pughe went to work in London as a lawyer’s clerk. He spent six lonely years in the capital before encountering other Welsh migrants who shared his literary interests. In 1783 he joined the Gwyneddigion Society and became part of the political and cultural ferment which characterised London-Welsh life during this period.  He began to study the important collection of Welsh manuscripts kept by the Cymmrodorion Society at the Welsh Charity School, in Gray’s Inn Lane. And with the financial support of the skinner and literary patron, Owain Myfyr, he began publishing the earliest Welsh texts. He was joint editor, with Myfyr, of the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym (1789), and in 1792 he published The Heroic Elegies and other Pieces of Llywarç Hen. In the following year, the first part of his most influential work, the Welsh-English dictionary, Geiriadur Cynmraeg a Saesoneg (1793-1803), appeared. Pughe was also the principal editor of one of the most significant landmarks of Welsh scholarship, the three volumes of The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801 and 1807). As a result of his prolific output, Pughe came to be regarded – in both Wales and England – as the greatest authority on the Welsh language, and on Welsh history and literature. And he corresponded with a wide circle of eminent English writers and antiquarians.

Yet, despite his industriousness and enthusiasm, Pughe was a credulous character, and an uncompromising romantic. The literary forger Iolo Morganwg succeeded in exploiting Pughe’s lack of critical judgement by persuading him to publish a large corpus of his own forgeries. Pughe also held specious and wildly inaccurate views on Welsh word derivations, and on the development of the language.  Consequently, his dictionary exercised a pernicious influence on 19th century ideas of correct Welsh usage.

Further reading

  • Glenda Carr, William Owen Pughe (Caerdydd, 1983).