by Dr. ALEC GILL MBE
The history of how English Dictionaries came into being is like reading an adventure story. The hero (or editor) seemed in constant battle with those in authority until, in the end, a volume is produced.
It is worth noting as well that English Dictionaries have never been produced by
the British Government, official body or learned committee. It was always left to enthusiastic eccentrics.
Bryson (1990) "In a kind of instinctive recognition of the mongrel, independent, idiosyncratic genius of the English tongue, dictionaries were often entrusted to people bearing those very characteristics" (p.144).
Earlier, poor attempts included:
1604 Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall
1721 BAILEY, Nathaniel Universal Etymological Dictionary
and others - but these were highly specialized and fairly sloppy.
1755 (June) JOHNSON, Samuel. The Dictionary of the English Language.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was blind in one eye, fat, incomplete education, and coarse in manner from a poor background. He was given the contract by the London publisher Robert
Dodsley. His finished dictionary contained - many inconsistencies (uphill/downhil);
- he was biased toward Saxon spellings and so ended words like critic / music / prosaic with a 'k' - little realizing that they were of Latin origin!
- he defined 'oats' as a grain that sustains horses in England and people in Scotland.
- some rambling sentences ran to 250 words.
Nevertheless, Johnson's work is a landmark in English literature:
- he defined some 43,000 words supported by 114,000 quotations;
- he was paid less than £200 per year - from which he had to pay assistants;
- he laboured away in a garret off Fleet Street; and
- he achieved in under nine years what forty members of the French Academy could not do in forty years - he captured the majesty of his mother tongue, and gave it a dignity that was long overdue.
In the wake of Johnson's Dictionary, grammarians felt the need to set down rules (shall / will). Standard of correctness crept in and the debate is still kept going by the purists. The Johnson museum in Lichfield is a wonderful experience. I have yet to visit his London base off Fleet Street.
WEBSTER, Noah (1758-1843) was a pernickety schoolteacher / lawyer in Connecticut, severe, correct, humourless, religious, temperate man who was not easily liked. He was short, pale, smug and boastful - a charmless loner who criticized almost everyone - but greatly plagiarized the work of Englishman Thomas Dilworth.
Webster boasted 23 languages. He published a series of books and was probably the best-seller in American history (after The Bible) who sold at least 60 million copies.
His major work came in 1828 called The American Dictionary of the English Language containing 70,000 words.
He suggested spelling changes such as bilt, groop, tuf, tung, wimmen - but few American writers took any notice. His suggestions for center / theater, however, were taken up.
He was a passionate patriot who insisted that American English was as good as British. He refused royalties, sold his rights and so never gained the wealth his labour merited. After Noah died in 1843, the rights were bought by Charles and George Merriam who employed Webster's son-in-law to expunge all the ridiculous spellings. The Merriam-Webster Dictionaries have been a great success since 1847.
THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
1884 The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first volume "a-Ant" first appeared in the February that year. Its ambitious intention was to record every word used in English since 1150 and trace it back through all its shifting meanings, spellings and uses to its earliest recorded appearance, plus at least one citation for each century of its existence.
MURRAY, James Augustus Henry (1837-1915) was chosen for this arduous undertaking. He was a Scottish-born bank clerk, school teacher, self-taught philologist. An unlikely choice. Murray had a flowing white beard and liked to be photographed in a long black housecoat plus his mortarboard. He got his eleven children involved in sifting through several million slips of paper.
He believed the work would take about 12 years and cover 6400 pages. The whole project took more than four decades and 15,000 densely printed pages. Hundreds of volunteers helped with the research, sending citations from all over the world.
As with Murray, some of them were also eccentrics.
James PLATT specialized in obscure words. He owned not one book. Worked for his father in the City and each lunch-time borrowed one book from the British Museum Reading Room. He scoured through it and replaced it the next day with another book. Weekends he haunted London's opium dens and dockyard pubs looking for native speakers of obscure tongues whom he questioned on small points of semantics.
[He sounds like a character someone could write a film about?]
Dr.W.C.MINOR, an American expatriate, who contributed tens of thousands of words from his private library. In one year alone he contributed 12,000 entries. There came a time when he was invited to a contributors' meeting, but he had to decline. He was an inmate of Broadmoor, a prison hospital for the criminally insane. He had been committed while in America and after his release he fled to London because he felt he was being persecuted by Irish people. One evening while walking in a London street he felt believed was being followed. He took out a pistol, turned around and shot dead an innocent pedestrian.
Murray worked ceaselessly for 36 years until his death in 1915 aged 78 - while working on the letter "U" (Undertaker?). His assistants completed the work in 1928. Five years later it became the OED. The second edition was published in 1989 in 20 volumes:
2,412,000 supporting quotations, and
It is perhaps the greatest work of scholarship ever produced. No other language has anything remotely approaching its scope. Because of it existence, more is known about the history of English than any other language in the world.
AG: The OED is the De Brett's of English words - they each have their own historic, aristocratic background. Every word has its detailed pedigree in the OED.
REF: MURRAY, K.M.Elisabeth. 1977. CAUGHT IN THE WEB OF WORDS: James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary.
NEW HAVEN (Conn). Yale University Press.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would love to write a play about his life and struggles against
'the powers-that-be' .
CONCLUSION: Graves & Hodge (1943) "English dictionaries are collections of precedents, rather than official codebooks of meaning" (p.19).
Language should never be a barrier to thought or expression of emotions.
Language must never become an END in itself! It is merely a MEANS by which we transmit thoughts from ourselves to others - either written or spoken.
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