CHWP B.28 Bailey, "Old Dictionaries, New Knowledge"

In 1975, I built a database founded on C.T. Onions's Shakespeare Glossary, first published in 1911. This work is not a complete dictionary of Shakespeare's language; the scope of it he described in his preface.

Creating a concordance from this glossary would, I thought, provide a useful map of Shakespeare's language, as well as offering insight into lexicographical method.

On the whole, this project was not very successful. True, I could create lists of Shakespeare's colour terms -- or at least enumerate those terms in which Onions had used the word colour in the definition. Similarly, I could identify aspects of Onions's lexicographical practice -- for instance, his discrimination of epithets as contemptuous, complimentary, or conventional. In all important respects, this method of sorting a dictionary was identical to that used by Laurence Urdang (working on the first Random House Dictionary) in the early 1960s to pull out entries with field labels (like astronomy) for specialist review or to check consistency of practice in definitions.

This approach turned out to be the right idea insufficiently pressed to conclusion. Part of the problem was that Onions did not treat the complete Shakespeare lexicon, only a somewhat eccentric part of it -- mainly the subsequently obsolete and provincial. The concordance did not give the whole range of Shakespeare's musical terms, for instance. There wasn't enough to say what I wanted to say, and it was not possible for me to do a Boolean search -- except with paper and pencil -- in order to build inferences, for example, about the intersection of sets A, B, and C. I had plenty of ideas about the lay of the land, but the map my concordance provided only identified isolated features and those not necessarily the ones of greatest interest for the student of Shakespeare's English.

Now, of course, that's all changed. I can use the astonishing power of the machine to consult all of Shakespeare's vocabulary, not just a part of it. But for me to do so effectively I need the interpretive side as well, and for that purpose I can turn to the map hidden in the multi-volume landscape of the new OED.

My current work involves nineteenth-century English, and the map of the OED provides an unparalleled view. Early in the century the medical community began to give unprecedented attention to classical suffix -itis to describe the inflammation of various body parts: tonsillitis (1801), hysteritis (1803), gastritis (1806), mastitis (1842), prostatitis (1844), colitis (1860), appendicitis (1886). As surgery advanced during the century, the suffix -tomy was freely applied to the practice of chopping out the offending organ: hysterectomy (1886), gastroectomy (1886), colostomy (1888), prostatectomy (1890), appendectomy (1895), tonsillectomy (1899). Now the ideology of English at the time was that it was a bad practice in forming words to combine elements from different languages, an idea we might describe as "etymological harmony". Bronchitis (1808) and laparotomy (1878) thus were both well-formed since the "Greek" suffixes were attached to words of Greek origin. Vaginitis (1846) and ovariectomy (1889) were not because their roots are from Latin. Some learned observers wasted their breath lamenting this practice of mixing word parts from different sources, suggesting, to no avail, that the word digamy was better than bigamy and dicycle better than bicycle because bigamy and bicycle violated the principle of etymological harmony. The on-line OED allows me to track the futility of their efforts.

A second example of the insight made possible by the use of the OED in database form draws our attention to the competition in nineteenth-century English between words formed with the prefix auto- and those made with the prefix self-. Early in the century, auto- and self- offered essentially synonymous prefixes for the creation of new words. Only a few new words were created using auto-, however -- among them autobiography (1809), and automatic (applied to machinery in 1802). Most of them were either derivatives of words already in existence -- for instance, autocracy (1655) yielded autocrat (1803), autocratic (1813), and autocratically (1860) -- or applied in limited technical contexts -- for example, autophony "self-examination of one's voice" (1862) or autolaryngoscopy "self-examination of one's larynx" (1870). Self- compounds, according to Henry Bradley's account in the OED, had achieved a particular vogue in the seventeenth century, especially in philosophical and theological writings, but the nineteenth century revived the practice of forming words with self-, using the prefix with "unlimited application". Some of these were in competition with their auto- counterparts -- for instance, self-acting (1824) with automatic, self-fertilization (1877) with autogamy (1880), and, of persons, self-reliance (1827) with autonomy (1803). What made these words created with self- "unlimited" was that the prefix could be attached to virtually any word class: self-abandonment (1818), self-awareness (1880), self-directed (1808), self-effacement (1866), self-loathing (1899), self-sacrificial (1855). For those who debated the propriety of new English words, these new formations with self- counted as ones properly belonging to the language since most of them were made "from its own roots and stems". This argument about the propriety of borrowings, and the dispute over etymological harmony, revived the old Renaissance dispute, adding yet another chapter to the history of the inkhorn controversy.

From the perspective of old dictionaries, these examples offer what is to me a powerful insight into the relation between linguistic ideology and linguistic practice. Of course since we are dealing with prefixes in this set of examples, it would have been possible for me to gather the same information by the use of the printed books, but it would have been far more tedious to do so, and I could not be sure of having collected all the examples. If I want to extend the inquiry, however, the computer is essential; unselfpitying, for instance, is a modern coinage by William Faulkner, a usage buried deep in the lengthy entry for the prefix un- and thus not easily found by conventional means.

Using the OED as a database allows me to turn the dictionary inside out for various purposes. I can, for instance, convert it to a thesaurus, revealing, for instance, the possibilities in English for naming the tasty sea-slug: bêche-de-mer, sea-cucumber, sea-swallow, and trepang. This may seem a somewhat exotic example, but it is obvious, I hope, what question this list answers -- that is, the question of the English encounter with the mysterious East with the borrowings here from Malay (trepang) and French (bêche-de-mer), the loan translation from Dutch (sea-swallow), and the homespun metaphor from English (sea-cucumber).

It is just as easy to transform the OED into an etymological dictionary. By selecting all the words derived from the Peruvian language Quechua, I can see differences between nineteenth-century imports and those words borrowed in the Renaissance -- for instance, quinoa (lentil-like grain, 1625), quinquina (the cinchona tree and its bark, 1656), quipu (the mnemonic device, 1704), vicuna (the cousin of the llama, 1622), viscacha (chinchilla-like animal, 1604). The nineteenth-century borrowings are more exotic than these but they also reveal, once again, the well-known fact that borrowed words are not always selected to fill gaps in the vocabulary but, as in tambo (1830), are often used to ornament travellers' tales with a been-to sophistication. A tambo is simply an inn. Making the OED into an etymological dictionary is not difficult, though one needs to know something of the practices of the editors -- for instance, William A. Craigie (who edited Q and V, among other parts of the alphabet) spelled Quichua with an i while his colleagues followed the more usual practice of spelling it with an e. It also helps to know that James Murray began the Dictionary with the idea that this language might best be called "Peruvian" or, more finely, "native Peruvian" (as in the entry for alpaca [1604]). Those labouring on the complete revision of the OED have plenty of challenges like these to face; the computer enables them to impose consistency on the idiosyncratic -- and for us to discover inconsistency when they have not managed to do so.

What pleases me, of course, is that I can bend the Dictionary to my purposes -- without awaiting the revision that will appear in the next century. Having this particular old dictionary at hand enables me to do my work as a historian of English right now -- and fortunately I know enough of its quirks and foibles to compel it to yield the information I need.

Not everyone wants to make a list of the synonyms for sea-slug, nor is it to just anyone's taste to compile an etymological dictionary illuminating the impact of Quechua on English. Yet the point of building reference works (and databases) is to allow inquirers to ask unanticipated questions. Much as I honour them for their labours, those who converted the OED into a database seem not to have been especially imaginative in anticipating questions -- at least the examples I have seen mainly involve such strategies as counting how often Shakespeare is quoted. Now I certainly have no quarrel with using the database to investigate Victorian reading tastes or Shakespeare's contribution to English. But there is much more there to be discovered than that. The database gives us a map of the language and the means to investigate both the centre and the remote districts (see the essays by Taylor and Tompa). As I hope is obvious, I believe that any old dictionary allows us to see the landscape in new ways -- and that the sooner we have more old dictionaries to explore the better.



[6] Onions 1966: iii.