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

A generation ago a metaphor from physics became popular among those who study language -- just as the physicist sees light from the viewpoints of particle, wave, and field, so too linguists recognized that language varies depending upon one's perspective (Pike 1972). Words like pimpompet and bumdockdousse are exemplary "particles"; domains like the synonyms for sea-slug or the reflexes of Quechua are "waves". I want now to conclude with the "field" perspective.

James Murray wrapped up his Romanes lectures of 1900 by claiming that "it can be maintained that in the Oxford Dictionary, permeated as it is through and through with the scientific method of the century, lexicography has for the present reached its supreme development".[7] In this, as in so many other things, Murray was entirely correct, and surely at the distance of nearly a century we can begin to see the "field" of the OED, the way in which is precisely mirrors the ideas of nineteenth-century linguistic science. So far, we have been reluctant to examine this question, and as a result, our conception of what a dictionary is and might be is still constrained by the magnificent OED.

Let me list some of the cultural "fields" that open themselves thanks to the availability of the OED as a database. With this powerful tool, we can see just what Murray meant by the "scientific method" of his century.

First it is obvious that the Dictionary mirrors nineteenth-century modesty about bodily functions, particularly sexual ones. Not until Robert Burchfield began his supplementation project did the very interesting and very frequent words from this domain receive proper treatment in an English dictionary on historical principles. One of the reviewers of the re-issue of the OED had already lamented this deficiency; in 1934, A.S.C. Ross declared: "it certainly seems regrettable that the perpetuation of a Victorian prudery (unacceptable in philology beyond all other subjects) should have been allowed to lead to the omission of some of the commonest words in the English language".[8] Burchfield did much to repair the omissions, though it is clear that much more remains to be done if this domain of the English vocabulary is to be fully treated. Of course, the original OED did contain a few "dirty words", ones noticed promptly by senior-common room wits: ballock, merkin, and twat. The editors were obliged to include them for reasons that overcame squeamishness: ballock to explain the folk names for the plants ballock('s) grass and ballock-wort; merkin inexplicably appears, perhaps because it was both literary and obsolete; twat because of Browning's gaffe in thinking "it denoted some part of a nun's attire". Yet these entries are mere accidents, ones that pale in comparison to the rich hoard of such vocabulary in Farmer and Henley's seven-volume compilation published between 1890 and 1904.

A second, and equally well-known fact about the Dictionary is its view that southern England was the centre of the language and all else periphery. (Scotland was a privileged domain on the periphery, thanks in part to the patriotism of Murray and Craigie.) In an unpublished letter now in the National Library of Scotland, Murray wrote in 1900:

As he had vastly expanded attention to the vulgar portion of the vocabulary, Burchfield was similarly pioneering in extending the scope of the OED to the United States and the Commonwealth, but with the database we can find out more than ever before about just what part of "Little England" Murray and his colleagues set out to cover and what parts of the larger English-speaking world they ignored. A comparison of the original OED with The Australian National Dictionary shows that coverage of the emerging English that region was very sparsely treated.

Nowadays, we view prescriptive dictionaries with suspicion, presuming that they are compiled by elitist charlatans bent on celebrating their own, or their paymasters's, usage. Since the OED is a great dictionary, it must not be prescriptive. Thus, in her recent Guide to the OED, Donna Lee Berg declares:

This is an attractive statement, and it is certainly true that Murray's Dictionary was far more inclusive than the one foreseen in 1857 by Richard Chenevix Trench and far more tolerant than any other by that time produced.

But the word "non-judgmentally" simply will not stand the close examination of the OED that the database allows. Consider the nearly two thousand entries where the label "erroneous" appears, for instance; I include here just two lexical examples with seasonal Canadian content: badger, Murray declares, is "erroneously applied to beaver and otter"; brocket "sometimes applied incorrectly [to] a deer in its third year" (rather than its second). As for pronunciation, under the prefix pn-, Murray writes: "It is to be desired that it were sounded in English also [as in French and German], at least in scientific and learned words; since the reduction of pneo- to neo-, pneu- to new-, and pnyx- to nix-, is a loss to etymology and intelligibility, and a weakening of the resources of the language." Such statements as these are by no means "descriptive" or "non-judgmental". Surveying them as a group, we might notice that there is a strong reluctance to admit the anglicization of foreign borrowings -- particularly ones from the classical languages. In this respect, the OED swims against the tide of the language.

Murray's lecture was titled The Evolution of English Lexicography, and the "evolutionary" metaphor was as powerful for him as for any nineteenth-century scientist. In the OED, words "evolve", and the ones that survived into nineteenth-century English are more copiously treated than the ones that became extinct at some earlier stage of the language. Thus the OED is a historical dictionary as the language was seen from the perspective of the century, and Murray was discomfited by Thomas Hardy's revival of dead words which then had to be treated as contemporary usage rather than as obsolete or archaic. The fact that the Dictionary itself played a role in the revival was doubly troubling, since it was not playing by the rules of natural selection for Hardy to take words out of the Dictionary and install them anew in literature. With the database, it is easy to find the label revival (or revived) in close proximity to obsolete in order to discover this process of revivifying dead words -- particularly, according to the Dictionary, the preoccupation of Walter Scott. This process results in many now familiar words: jape, obsess, ruffle, scant, and veritable, for instance. Dais, we are told, "died out in English about 1600", but came back into use "due to historical and antiquarian writers". Chivalrous had been described by Johnson in 1755 as "now out of use", but not long after "writers on the romances of chivalry" made it again part of the language. From the viewpoint of the OED, usage was not supposed to be discontinuous, and words like these are treated as exceptional in some way. When species "evolve", some die and some survive. They are not supposed to come and go at the whim of Nature. Murray, and his successors, were not able to escape the "evolutionary" metaphor so compelling to science and to see the history of words in a different way.

In his 1954 Plan and Bibliography, my late colleague Hans Kurath described his expectations for the Middle English Dictionary; "The Editors of the MED," he wrote, "do not share the easy optimism of nineteenth century scholarship with regard to historical semantics."[10] This sentence occurs with no subsequent elaboration, and I very much regret that I never asked him to explain it. Still, it takes no great leap of imagination to see what Kurath was criticizing as "easy optimism". He must have had in mind the alternating schemes of "historical" and "logical" ordering of senses that is one of the hallmarks of the OED. "Historical" ordering, of course, means presenting the sense development of words so the earliest usages come first and the subsequent ones follow. "Logical" ordering ignores the historical record -- presuming that gaps in it are accidents of collecting (see Zgusta). Usually in a "logically" ordered entry, the narrow senses come first followed by the broadened ones, or the literal is seen as prior to the figurative.

Murray's concept of nineteenth-century science was that there is regularity and order hidden within the welter of confusion and chaos. Sense-divisions have sharp boundaries rather than fuzzy ones; grammatical distinctions (say, between noun and verb) are prior to semantic ones. We can see how the vocabulary ought to have evolved -- even when the evidence suggests that it didn't follow a "natural" development. With the Dictionary database, we can discover the uses of the word natural in proximity to development to explore the idea of sense evolution. Thus, for formula, Murray declares: "Carlyle's use of formula, however, though suggested by a mistake, is in itself a very natural development from the ordinary sense." Murray's semantics is further revealed in such comments as "The subsequent development assumed in the arrangement of the verb is quite natural, though not actually established." (s.v. cant sb. 3). In case one had been impressed by the empiricism of the OED, such comments give an idea of just how much theory is imposed on data rather than derived from it.

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These inquiries into the history and structure of the OED show just how much information is made accessible when old dictionaries are turned into new databases. Most of these observations simply could not be made from the published volumes. The power of the computer helps us wrest new knowledge from these old dictionaries. The more we can know through this work, the better our understanding of language -- and language culture -- will be.

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[7] Murray 1900: 49.

[8] Quoted in Burchfield 1973: 84.

[9] Berg 1993: 5.

[10] Kurath 1954: 3.