On Dictionaries

The ever-changing role of the lexicographer
I

What do you think he means by Zip?' 'I don't know,' said Mr. Wartle; 'let's look it up in the dictionary.'

This scrap of dialogue, from Mr. W. L. George's Caliban, arrested my attention, as illustrating what are perhaps the two most characteristic things about dictionaries—their supposed omniscience and their ubiquity. There is something touching in Mr. Wartle's childlike confidence that the dictionary, like photography, cannot lie. He does not express a wish to consult the Oxford Dictionary, or the Century Dictionary, or the latest edition of Webster, in which he might reasonably expect to find the history and meaning of a word traced with erudition and competence. 'The dictionary' is good enough for him, and what the dictionary says, goes. It is true that even the great Dr. Johnson defined the word pastern as 'the knee of an horse,' an anatomical inexactitude which would produce on an ostler the same kind of paralytic shock that a sailor might experience on finding in the same famous work leeward and windward described in identical terms as 'toward the wind.' But, fortunately for lexicographers, those who consult the dictionary are not usually critical. In fact, almost the only individual to approach the sacred book in the spirit of a doubter is the lexicographer himself, who knows by the sad experience of his own misdoings how easily a mistaken explanation, an incorrect form, or even a non-existent word may be handed down from one compiler to another.

Look up in any of the widely used dictionaries which claim to give etymologies the word syllabus and you will find it derived from the Greek sullambanein, to take together. This sounds a reasonable explanation, and syllabus is now a word we should be sorry to lose, but it is really a ghost and has no more to do with the aforesaid Greek word than with syllabub. It is simply a mistake in early printed editions of Cicero's Letters to Atticus for sittubas, the plural of the Greek sittuba, a parchment contents-label attached to a manuscript. So much for omniscience. It may be concluded that the earnest inquirer into words would be well advised to believe only what he finds in the Oxford Dictionary—and not always that.

As to the ubiquity of the dictionary there can be no question. Within the memory of the oldest now alive there have been few houses—at least of those possessing any books at all—whose library has not included an out-of-date Barclay, an obsolete abridgment of Johnson, an early Webster, or some equally useful misleader of the mind that thirsts for information. ;It was not always thus, for 'the dictionary,' as we understand the word, is a comparatively modern element in life. Dictionarium is not a classical Latin word, any more than lexicon is classical Greek. To the mediaeval scholar a dictionary was a collection of ‘dictions’ or phrases, put together for the use of pupils studying Latin. We find dictionarius first used in this sense in the thirteenth century by an Englishman, John Garland, and dictionarium in the fourteenth; but the first work published in England under the English title 'Dictionary' was the famous Latin-English Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot which appeared in 1588, the year before Robert Estienne, of the greatest of all dictionary-making dynasties, published his Dictionnaire François-Latin. The word Lexicon—the neuter of the Greek adjective lexicos, 'relating to words'—dates in its accepted current sense from the Renaissance only.

The earliest lexicographical efforts were probably made by Roman students of the Greek language and culture. We are told that Cato learned Greek at eighty, a task which he would hardly have tackled without realizing the importance of tabulating his newly acquired vocabulary. Teachers naturally compiled lists of words and phrases for the use of their pupils, and such vocabularies would be copied and attain some circulation; but it is obvious that what we call a dictionary was made possible only by the invention of printing.

If we restrict our attention to England, we find that all our early glossaries explain the vernacular by Latin, or what in the Middle Ages passed for Latin. Such vocabularies were in fact compiled to help grammar-school boys to acquire a knowledge of the only general means of communication possessed by the learned. Although, as we have seen, the words dictionarius and dictionarium occur, most compilers use more fanciful titles, such as the Ortus Vocabularum, 'the garden of words'; the Promptorium Parvulorum, 'the storehouse of the little clerks,' of which many editions were afterwards printed by Wynkyn de Worde; or the Catholicon Anglicum, 'the English universal remedy.' These are perhaps the three most comprehensive, but we have a host of smaller compilations. In these the order, instead of being alphabetical, is usually classifactory, that is, the words are arranged in parts of speech, or, more frequently, under such headings as kitchen implements, garments, diseases, musical instruments, birds, animals, and so on. Later on, when in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Latin-English dictionaries aiming at some completeness become numerous, we still find subsections devoted to such headings as herbs, trees, precious stones, names of hawks, names of hounds, and so forth, and in the earliest the mediaeval arrangement of the English before the Latin is usually preserved. The practice of giving fanciful names to dictionaries did not die out until well on in the eighteenth century. A favorite title, both in England and abroad, was gazophylacium, that is, treasure-house, or more commonly, thesaurus—a name still borne by well-known publications. Florio's famous Italian-English Dictionary of 1598 was called a Worlde of Wordes, a title adopted later by Phillips for his large English Dictionary. Glossographia is another description used by seventeenth century lexicographers.

II

The dictionary-makers of the Middle Ages aimed at teaching Latin and would have been amused at any suggestion that their own native English was worthy of attention. But the introduction of printing, the spread of learning, the diffusion of a noble literature, and closer contact with foreign influences had such an effect on the language that it became a subject not only worthy of study, but also involving difficulties and obscurities which cried aloud for elucidation. As Mr. John Drinkwater has lately written: 'The English language was, to cultured Elizabethans, like a new-found and wonderful inheritance. And they reveled in it, they sported with it in every conceivable way.' And so the dictionary came into existence, like other novelties, to supply a long-felt want.

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In