Saturday, September 24, 2016

Lexicography

In one particularly memorable episode of Blackadder," Ink and Incapability," when the Prince Regent (played by Hugh Laurie) asks Dr. Johnson (played by Robbie Coltrane) what his new Dictionary is good for, the learned Doctor declares that "It is a book that tells you what English words mean." "I know what English words mean," replies the prince, "I speak English! You must be a bit of a thicko!"

And indeed, one may well ask, why do we need a Dictionary of our own language? After all, numerous English writers, from Chaucer to Spencer to Shakespeare, got along quite well without one, as did their readers -- not to mention the great throng of ordinary speakers of English, whose talk continued unabated, with no need for works of reference to understand it, for centuries. And yet English, by the eighteenth century now well-established in print and manuscript, was rapidly expanding its vocabulary, variety of styles, and usage -- becoming in a sense as much as textual presence as a spoken one. Furthermore, since it had acquired so many words from other classical and modern languages, the search for the right word -- le mot juste, as the French say -- might well involve choosing between several near-synonyms with slightly varied shades of meaning. Finally, since English had been around for a while, there were now a fair number of uncommon or archaic words with which not every reader would necessarily be familiar.

And of course, English was still changing, and continues to do so,  as any living language must. That's where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes in. Established in the mid-19th century by scholars such as F.J. Furnivall (a founder of the Chaucer Society) and James Murray, it aimed to be the first true historical dictionary of English. An early sort of crowd-sourced project, its entries were supplied by readers who scoured set texts, and filled and sent in cards for the words used in them. At one point, Murray was astonished to find that one of the Dictionary's most prolific contributors, Dr. William Chester Minor, was not -- as Murray had assumed -- a physician at Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane, but a patient (Minor's wealthy family had furnished his room with a fine library of books). The OED's work went on through a first (1928), and then a second (1989), and what is effectively a third in 2000, when it was made available online. Unlike any other dictionary of English, the OED is committed to tracing a word's use in context, from its first known appearance to the present moment (if still used).

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