[CHWP Titles]

Old Dictionaries, New Knowledge

Richard W. Bailey

Department of English, University of Michigan

Second-day keynote speech of Conference on Early Dictionary Databases (Toronto, October 1993)

CHWP B.28, publ. November 1996. © Editors of CHWP 1996. [First published in CCH Working Papers, 4 (1994) and Dictionnairique et lexicographie, 3 (1995).]

[Abstract / Résumé]

Early dictionaries, knowledge, information, cultural history, past and present ideologies, OED

We live, as I have said before, in a golden age of lexicography. Never before have we had so many people working on so many different dictionaries, and the results are almost all splendid. The Trésor de la langue française continues its marvellous and rapid progress toward completion; in Germany, the re-editing of the Deutsches Wörterbuch -- as Alexander Pope said of the alexandrine line -- "drags its slow length along". Here in Toronto, the Dictionary of Old English, and at home in Ann Arbor, the Middle English Dictionary, make available unprecedented resources for the study of medieval English texts. In Britain, the massive task of revising the entire Oxford English Dictionary is underway. Smaller dictionaries of all kinds continue to appear; I might mention the two excellent volumes published not long since by the University of Toronto Press, the Dictionary of Newfoundland English and the Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English. All this can be celebrated, even without beginning to list the mass-market commercial dictionaries of English and of other languages, every one of which marks some advance on its predecessors.

These dictionaries were all begun with an uneasy mixture of anxiety and hope, and anxiety was an especially large ingredient in the works that pioneered the uses of computers in lexicography. Let me offer one of them as an example.

In March 1969, the Centre for Medieval Studies in Toronto organized a conference that was designed to launch work on the Dictionary of Old English. Re-reading the conference papers gives us some perspective on how we arrived at our present happy condition. Of course one might emphasize how different the world is today from what it was then. Professor Pierre R. Ducretet of the French department had just completed a concordance to Candide, and his was a tale of woe -- long nights spent feeding punch cards into a reader for their conversion to tape, for instance; the lack of any but tailor-made software. "It is not easy," he said. "It sometimes happens that, in running 20,000 cards on to a tape, a job which takes five to ten hours, towards the end of the job, one or two cards will spindle and the whole thing will have to be started over again."[1] Probably there are few scholars now active who have handled a box of punch cards, and fewer still who can imagine the thrill of sympathy that ran though the audience when Professor Ducretet mentioned that dreaded verb spindle.

The 1969 conference was not all dread and gloom, of course. One might rather emphasize the clarity of vision of some of the participants. Professor Jess Bessinger of Cornell had just completed his concordance to Beowulf, and he was more prescient than many. He discussed how really large bodies of natural language text might be processed; he imagined what would later be called distributed processing, with "a single powerful computer, or linkage of computers"[2] making it possible for geographically dispersed scholars to work cooperatively (or even competitively) on the same body of text. He could, perhaps, not have imagined the riches we enjoy today. It seemed a difficult job to create a huge concordance for all the surviving texts of Old English back in 1969, but that work was accomplished and I now have access to it from my workstation at home, while, at the same time, it is in use for the Dictionary of Old English. Equally convenient is the opportunity to use the massive collection of French literature prepared so carefully and over so many years by the workers on the TLF in Besançon and Nancy. This same vision of many workers connected to a massive body of information was also expressed at another conference on lexicography -- this one held in Leiden in 1977 -- by Professor Quemada; the greatest number of inquirers, he said, could work on the same material, with the products of their research in turn stored for future use.[3] This vision has now evolved to the idea of a docuverse, an adroit new word blending document and universe (see Delany); in principle, this docuverse is a virtual world of all the documents -- a world in which, we hope, they will be universally available.

The present we enjoy was created for us by these visionaries of the past, and now it is our turn to speculate and dream about the future. I intend to focus on just one question -- and one that most of those present have already answered: Why should we devote our energy and resources to old dictionaries? What is it about them that makes them an especially high priority for study?

To begin with, old dictionaries contain information that can be found in no other place. Let me offer a rather complicated example. In 1653, that remarkable Scot, Thomas Urquhart, began his translation of the comedies of Rabelais. Now Urquhart was unusually qualified for this difficult job, having passed a portion of his youth on the Grand Tour of France, Spain, and Italy (where he "soon spoke the languages of those countries with such a 'liveliness of the country accent' that he passed 'for a native'"). While abroad, he "seized every opportunity of demonstrating the superiority of Scotland in point of 'valour, learning, and honesty' to any of the nations he visited" (DNB). In his translation of Rabelais, Urquhart renders the word pimpompet as bumdockdousse, a word not otherwise known in English and unrecorded in either the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue or the Scottish National Dictionary. Edmond Huguet's excellent dictionary of the French of Rabelais' century reports merely that pimpompet was a children's game formed, as a word, on the onomatopoeic principle.

At this point, our inquiry turns to Randle Cotgrave's Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues of 1611. In it are found words that are in common use today, for instance botanic and medallion, that do not appear in non-dictionary English until half a century later. Thanks to Cotgrave, we know that they existed earlier. Cotgrave defines pimpompet as "a kind of game wherein three hit each other on the bumme with one of their feet." As this definition shows, Cotgrave was not always entirely clear as an explainer (though few can compete with him in lexicological verve); the object and rules of pimpompet (or bumdockdousse) remain, perhaps fortunately, shrouded in mystery. Bumdockdousse -- which we might gloss as "rump-thwacking" or maybe "butt-kicking" -- probably did not gain wide currency as either a word or a sport in Britain, but thanks to Cotgrave we know a little more about what sort of game it was. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary recognized the worth of Cotgrave's Dictionaire, and it is quoted there more than 6,000 times. Perhaps the most significant testimony to his value is the OED use of the label "not in Cotgrave" as evidence that some word from French appearing later did not exist in English at the beginning of the seventeenth century. By going back to Cotgrave to elucidate Urquhart's bumdockdousse, Murray added -- however minutely -- to our understanding of sport and of Rabelais.

Just how valuable these early dictionaries are for the study of English was demonstrated on a much larger scale by the late Jürgen Schäfer. (Professor Schäfer's last appearance on the academic scene was in Toronto; just after his return to his family in Augsberg, he died in 1985 at the premature age of 52.) Schäfer studied the precursors of the "hard word" dictionaries of the early seventeenth century, the glossaries often appended to sixteenth-century translations from both the classical and modern languages. These glossarists, he declared, "were not merely indiscriminate copiers but true pioneers in the field of lexicography".[4]

Schäfer's work -- brought to publication by his widow, Loretta Schäfer, and some of his former colleagues and students -- illustrates just how valuable these old word lists can be. Like all the rest of us, Schäfer stood on the shoulders of his precursors: those who formed and catalogued the great research libraries; others in our century who compiled the great bibliographies -- in this instance, the Short-Title Catalog by Pollard and Redgrave; still others who filmed or facsimiled scarce books to make them widely available. Schäfer and his co-workers scanned more than a thousand titles in the search for glossaries; devised an encoding scheme using fixed data fields on punched cards (fortunately for us, a now obsolete technology); and published the results. More than 6,000 quotations, as a result, supplement, amplify, and improve the coverage of English words found in the OED.

Why, one might ask, was the study of these old word lists worth the trouble? If all the additions were on the order of bumdockdousse, the effort could not easily be justified.

One use of Schäfer's work is to re-write the history of English lexicography. His study of these glossaries shows that the seventeenth-century dictionary-makers were more attentive to actual usage than had previously been thought. They did not mainly anglicize Latin or French words to swell the size of their books but gathered evidence of borrowed words already used in English. Schäfer's attention to minute detail also illuminates the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, a matter previously treated in his Documentation in the OED. Studying what might have been found -- but wasn't -- could be seen as an indictment of the Dictionary; in fact, the rather meagre harvest of all these labours only increases one's admiration for Murray and his successors, particularly when we now know that the collecting was often haphazard and whole sections of the alphabet gathered before Murray became editor were simply lost.

But the history of lexicography is a narrow field. If the study of these word lists contributed only to that, it would hardly be worth the effort. Yet much larger questions are invited by Schäfer's work. For one thing, he shows that Shakespeare's lexical originality has been exaggerated. Many words are given in the OED as Shakespearean coinages but they are not. This exaggeration of his importance is partly the result of the attention given to him as the great national poet of England. Some of these "Shakespearean" words -- attractive in Hamlet, for instance -- were, as Schäfer discovered, already in use by others -- as one might expect from a popular playwright aiming at pleasing, rather than puzzling, the audience. From my own viewpoint, as a historian of English, I find the "inkhorn" controversy much illuminated by Schäfer's collection. "Inkhorn" terms were the undigested borrowings from other languages -- particularly Greek and Latin -- thought not to match the "genius" of English but taken straight from the classical ink pot. In the sixteenth century, this battle of ancient and modern worked itself out over such words as the "Saxon" scypman vs. the "Latin" mariner.[5] Schäfer gives us a useful insight into this dispute by showing how touch-line competed with tangent or wisdom-teeth with teeth of sapience. Even more significant, from my viewpoint, are his discoveries about borrowed words from the Americas. In the English Renaissance, anglophone patriots were already beginning to see the "treasure of our tongue" enriched by borrowings from distant languages. In fact, most of the American exotica -- like coca or sassafras -- came from a no more distant a spot than Spain.

We can argue, as I have just done, that old dictionaries are the repositories of knowledge found nowhere else, but this claim alone cannot suffice to justify the expense of turning them into databases. After all, scientific works -- say the Middle English translation of Guy de Chauliac's Cyrurgie, or the splendidly-titled Renaissance work, Robert Record's Urinal of Physick -- have an equal claim to our attention if we ask for information that cannot be found elsewhere -- in the case of these texts information about the practice of medicine.

Because they sketch the landscape of language, dictionaries are uniquely valuable for historical inquiry. To see what is now possible, we need to return to the ultimate origins of English lexicography, the classified word lists found several Old English glossaries. Here lists of Latin and Old English words were compiled for such categories as birds, metals, social classes, and parts of the body. But what can have been the uses of these lists? They were hardly helpful to translators, and only a little more valuable to those learning Latin -- presumably the reason for their compilation in the first place. The list of colour terms, for instance, was as a sketch of the "landscape", the viewpoint offered by the modern thesaurus or dictionary of synonyms. The lists, in short, express one aspect of the lexical imagination. What else can we create with the same application of lexical imagination?



[1] In Cameron et al. 1970: 12.

[2] In Cameron et al. 1970: 8.

[3] In Pijnenburg et al. 1980: 112.

[4] Schäfer 1989: vol. 1, 8.

[5] In Bailey 1991: 41.