I’m not anti-semantic, some of my best friends are words

Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if ill-formed it is rejected in society, if well-formed, adopted, and, after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries. Thomas Jefferson

 The OED, more so than any other dictionary, encompasses the entire history of all English’s glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is today. It’s a great read. It is much more engrossing, enjoyable and moving to read than you would typically think a non-narrative body of text could ever possibly be.  Ammon Shea, a man who read the whole Oxford English Dictionary in a year.

For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways. WH Auden


Dictionaries have traditionally held an iconic status in literate societies and no bookshelf was complete without one of these weighty tomes. Besides finding the mot juste, settling disputes in Scrabble and helping us with tricky crossword clues, they can also deal with far weightier questions. Did Shakespeare really invent as many words as he is given credit for? New information suggests that many of these words and expressions have earlier, popular, origins. And the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently ruled that, based on written evidence, the pavlova dessert was actually invented in New Zealand and not Australia. Surely Borges’s description of the Falklands War, two bald men fighting over a comb, is surely applicable here.

Lexicography goes back a long way and was practised in Ancient China, Greece and Rome. In fact, the earliest known dictionary, unearthed in the ruins of a palace of Nineveh, is probably a series of clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions from the time of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The only surviving copy is found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Not until Samuel Johnson produced his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was there a distinguished English Dictionary. We can learn a lot by comparing this dictionary with the one published by the Academie Francaise. They reflect two different ways of organisation – the individualist and the collectivist.

The creation of the French dictionary was entrusted to the Académie Française, a body which had been set up in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to purge French of its impurities. Although the Academy had 40 members, writing the dictionary was a long and laborious process. Here is how it was satirised by one of the Academie members, Antoine Furetière:

The one who shouts the loudest is the one who is right; each person gives forth with a long harangue on the slightest trifle. The second man repeats like an echo everything that the first has said, and most frequently three or four of them talk at the same time. In the commission composed of five or six persons, there is one of them who reads, one who offers his opinion, two who chat, one who sleeps, and one who spends his time perusing some dictionary which is on the table. When it is the turn of the second to express his views, the article has to be read to him again because of his distraction during the first reading . . . . No two lines are accepted without long digressions, without somebody telling a funny story or a tidbit of news, or without somebody else talking about conditions in the country and about reforming the government.

The academicians spent six years, almost as long as it took Johnson to complete his entire dictionary, just on the letter “G.” The dictionary was finally published in 1694, having taken 55 years to complete. Furetière, who was expelled from the academy for working on a rival dictionary, penned this ditty about the official dictionary:

I am this big dictionary,

Which was for half a century in the belly of my mother;

When I was born I had a beard and some teeth:

This fact should not be considered very unusual;

Since I was at the time fifty years old

Johnson’s dictionary offers a stark contrast to the French experience. The book, which was financed by local booksellers to the tune of 1,500 guineas (£1,575), equivalent to about £230,000 as of 2010, was composed by this one man in just seven years. The source of finance meant that the famously cantankerous lexicographer would have to pay back his patrons. The advantage of working alone was that Johnson was able to avoid a lot of the infighting that had afflicted the French version. The dictionary was finally published in 1755 and although it had its detractors, it was a remarkable monument to the intellect of this singular Englishman. However, its definitions were somewhat eccentric:

lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and determining the significance of words.

excise: A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

And the most memorable of all:

oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Johnson left a wonderful legacy for British lexicographers; the OED, the definitive work on the English language was built on the shoulders of this giant. It began when the Philological Society decided that English needed a more reliable dictionary. Eventually they reached agreement with Oxford University Press and James Augustus Henry Murray began work on what was called at that time a New English Dictionary. The original plan was for a four-volume 6,400-page work, which they estimated would take ten years. Some 800 volunteer readers were employed, including one William  Chester Minor, a Yale University trained surgeon and military officer in the U.S. Civil War. He was a brilliant linguist. Unfortunately he was psychotic and believed he was being pursued by Irishmen. After killing a man in London, he was confined to Broadmoor, the UK’s most notorious asylum for the criminally insane. In a quite astonishing feat, he made around 12,000 contributions from his cell, where he had built up a small  library.

Despite the 800 volunteers, progress was excruciatingly slow – after five years they were still on “ant”, and they realized that maybe their original estimate had been a tad optimistic. They did produce their first fascicle in 1884 but it would be another 44 years before the 125th and last instalment came out. When it was finally finished, The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles contained 400,000 words. The 20-volume second edition followed in 1989 and the third edition is due in ten years.  Compare the scale of the OED to the eighth Academie Francaise dictionary, published in 1935, which contained a mere 35,000 words.

Ammon Shea is a man after my own heart. The 37-year old former removal man from New York read the 22,000-page OED cover to cover, absorbing a total of 59 million words. With the help of strong coffee the New Yorker spent ten hours a day in the basement of his local library working through the twenty volumes. One of the things he said was that the sheer scale of the OED intimidated him – he felt like he didn’t really speak the English language. He felt more like a tourist struggling to order a cup of coffee or find the bathroom. But Mr. Shea published his experiences in his book Reading the OED and he has recently written a history of the phone book. Maybe the OED was just too much excitement for him.

Now the OED has gone high-tech and you can see it all online. The use of corpuses has revolutionised dictionary making. The future is undoubtedly online with vast new lexical databases that can be easily updated. The constraints on space almost disappear and retrieving information is so much more convenient.

I would love to be able to see all the OED’s contents online. They have some incredible features. But you have to pay a subscription. There is the rub. That is the beauty of Wikipedia. Maybe this kind of online collaborative project cannot provide the quality control that comes from the expertise and years of experience that professional editors bring to the table. But as an amateur I will make do with the free stuff. I have five or six dictionaries at home but I can’t see myself buying any in the future.

The other question raised by dictionaries is the descriptive/prescriptive debate. From previous posts you will know that I am in the former camp. The Thomas Jefferson quote above sums up my attitude perfectly. The idea that some academy can control how we speak strikes me as ridiculous. That is why I oppose language academies. They may have started in the Enlightenment, but the soon become what Bill Bryson calls “forces of ayatollah-like conservatism”. The French government’s attempts to curtail Anglicisms are about as logical as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the tide. I do seem to remember that by the time the Spanish DRAE included the word apartheid, Nelson Mandela was no longer on Robben Island. I think that now they are now more dynamic but my suggestion to Spain France and any other country which has an academy is simple: abolish them. You know it makes sense.


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