Flashbacks August 2006

A Taxonomy of Knowledge

Atlantic authors from the nineteenth century to the age of Wiki wax philosophical on encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauri.

It hadn’t always been this way.  In fact, in tracing the history of dictionaries, Weekley showed that that “‘the dictionary,’ as we understand the word, is a comparatively modern element in life.” The earliest dictionaries, of the Middle Ages, were merely teaching tools for Latin students, and the makers of these books “would have been amused at any suggestion that their own native English was worthy of attention.” It wasn’t until the Elizabethan era that English-speakers began to esteem their language highly enough to study it in any systematic way, but even the Elizabethan lexicographer limited himself to explaining only the most confusing English words.

If these earlier dictionaries were less superfluous, they still had their flaws. In studying the oldest dictionaries, Weekley found “that the dictionary-making animal has certain unvarying peculiarities. He is as irritable as a poet and as full of his own importance as a film star.” John Wesley’s 1753 dictionary bore a small inscription at the foot of its title page: “N.B. The Author assures you he thinks this is the best English Dictionary in the world.”

Weekley reserved his praise for Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary. In part it was the “anecdotic side” to Johnson that made his work appealing: Weekley reported, for instance, that “[a] lady, who simperingly congratulated him on his omission of all indecent words from the Dictionary, was met with the truly Johnsonian retort: ‘So you have been looking for them, Madam?’” Weekley naturally found Dr. Johnson’s work to be “full of personality,” (patriotism, for instance, was defined as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”). But he admired Johnson on purely scholarly grounds, too. Avoiding the conceit of his predecessors, the Doctor was able to sagely discern the limits of the lexicographer (who was, after all, just “a harmless drudge,” by his own definition); in the preface to his great work, he humbly acknowledged that no man in his trade could ever hope to “embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.”

The question of language’s decay would later absorb Simon Winchester in his assessment of yet another reference work: Pierre Mark Roget’s famous thesaurus. Winchester contended that Roget’s work was constantly misused, and that with each instance of misuse the language was becoming “a little worse, a little more mediocre, and a measure more decayed, disarranged, and unlovely. And that, I suggest, is why all Rogets should be shunned.”

Winchester admitted that Roget hadn’t intended for his reference work to become such a pernicious force. Indeed, Winchester portrayed Roget himself quite favorably. He was a man of “staggering polymathy”—a physician, a geologist, a chess expert, an authority on bees and the kaleidoscope. What’s more, Roget was “a thoroughly good person.” As a doctor, he advocated public health reforms and often treated patients who could not afford to pay him. As a scholar, he “held a profound belief in the right of ordinary men and women to know things,” co-founding the “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.” As with many encyclopedists and lexicographers, Roget probably considered his labors to be in part a philanthropic endeavor. There was even, Winchester suggested, a religious quality in Roget’s original intention: “His nobly Platonic vision was that the language could come to be seen as an ordered part of the cosmos, amply reflective of divine will and inspiration…. He believed in all sincerity that from out of the miasma of Victorian intellectual confusion could rise a gleaming pillar of lexical glory, a totem to the God who made it all.”

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David Zax is an intern for The Atlantic Monthly.

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