CHWP B.20 Dolezal, "The Canon of the English Dictionary"

2. Establishing the Canon

Presently, the history of English lexicography, which after all is a history of a succession of texts, seems to exist outside of literary history; thus, one finds no tradition of textual criticism that is adequately pertinent to the study of lexicography. We can import theories and methods of whatever school of literary theory most interests us, but I find, when attempting this, that the application of a literary method redounds upon its own principles. Indeed, dictionaries are treated as extra-literary; dictionaries support interpretation: I am never quite sure what my colleagues in literature departments mean to accomplish when they send students to a dictionary, since they would probably never send a student to look up poetry (the oddity of the phrase look up poetry registers the difference between text types). Outside of the contentious stew of literary theory, we find that the loosely defined discipline of English lexicography has no standard of measuring the universe of dictionaries;[4] no doubt the very history of publication and marketing has created this situation. It is within this context that I have argued for the inclusion of the Wilkins/Lloyd text in the domain of English lexicography. That the argument had to be made, and to some extent still needs to be made, reflects the sociology of the discipline more than the material evidence that can be brought to bear on the scholarship. Those who look no further than the 1946 publication of The English Dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson 1604-1755 by Starnes and Noyes to establish the canon of early English lexicography will find a single mention of Wilkins, and that mention has nothing explicit to say about his relationship to the construction of dictionaries; rather, the citation refers to a faction in the Royal Society who would reform the English language. A recent facsimile reprint of Starnes and Noyes that includes a new bibliography of the history of early English lexicography omits all publications printed since 1946 and before the facsimile edition that discuss the place of Wilkins and Lloyd in this history. We must conclude that there must be a need, however unstated and tacit, to exclude the Wilkins/Lloyd text; there is no need for me to rehearse my argument for inclusion until such time as those who would exclude Wilkins reply to my previous claims (Dolezal 1985).

2.1. Representing Meaning

Turning for a moment to the concept of electronic database, we can further confuse the issue of what constitutes a proper dictionary when we conflate all word-lists, concordances, glossaries, thesauruses, and dictionaries (not to mention all non-alphabetically-ordered wordlists: narrative or not) into machine-readable form. From this perspective, it would be absurd to exclude the Wilkins/Lloyd text; on the other hand, it would be wise to consider the bibliographical shape of the database. Thus, we cannot escape the underlying questions implied by the creation of an electronic database. This leads me to the next topic of discussion: the representation of meaning and knowledge. Representing meaning, by which in this discussion I mean recording definitions, depends on textual form. For the purpose of our discussion, definition also includes any classification schemes or semantic diagrams, no matter the larger context. For example, definitions appear not only in dictionaries but in linguistic treatises, glosses of texts, and narrative texts. Moreover, the form, or structure, of a vocabulary creates its own narrative, even if that narrative is limited to revealing the human agency that constructed the form. In other words, a lexicon, a database, a concordance, or a classification system either presents itself (inasmuch as it is the creation of human agency) as an unstated theory of knowledge, or as knowledge and artifact. If form determines meaning, or at least is partially constitutive of meaning, then the way we capture the data for construction of databases becomes crucial; I will discuss this point later in this essay.

In order to illuminate the general point concerning the structure of presentation and representation of meaning I shall use the specific case of the Wilkins text. Werner Hüllen pointedly argues for a differentiation between thesaurus (the Wilkins text) and dictionary. I do not intend to criticize Hüllen's work, but it does merit comment. We do not have the time to fully explore the claims concerning the difference between dictionaries and thesauruses made by him and others, but this statement is relevant to the point I am attempting to make: "[Wilkins'] book is the first collection of words that in our understanding deserves the name 'thesaurus'. However, Wilkins' thesaurus does not give definitions at all but simply lists words in a certain arrangement" (p. 117). Hüllen refers only to the hierarchically ordered compendium of concepts and does not mention the part of the book that has its own title page with the title Alphabetical Dictionary; to be sure the dictionary is also an index to the lexicon, but to a large extent it is self-contained. However, that point aside, if we look only at the so-called thesaurus portion of the book, we find lengthy discursive passages integrated within the classification tables.

The thesaurus-like nature of this passage is obvious; however, just as evident is the dictionary-like text. The word-list section follows a general pattern that Wilkins explains in a chapter on interpreting the text; usually, each separate item in lists as exemplified above is included within the Alphabetical Dictionary. The entries provide one-word paraphrases with appropriate grammatical and semantic markers that distinguish among words within and across semantic domains.[5] The preceding illustration from what are called 'Philosophical Tables' appears as an introduction to the concepts that appear within the category of 'VERTUE' (within the system, 'VERTUE' is formally considered a Radical or Integral, that is, an atomic or elementary semantic unit). Within the subcategories, we also can see dictionary-like text; for example, before the lexical items associated with the subcategory 'FORTITUDE,' Wilkins writes: "whereby we are made duly resolute against all such difficulties either of Fear or Discouragement as may hinder us in our duty". Unlike Roget's thesaurus, Wilkins gives discursive text introducing and connecting lists of semantically related items; these commentaries tell the reader how to understand the formal organization on the page (a guide to knowledge) and have the textual elements recognizable as a definition text-type.

These illustrations are representative of the whole; it probably does not matter if we call this text a dictionary, a universal language project, or a thesaurus; from a bibliographical perspective I cannot see how the text can be excluded from a history of lexicography. 'Dictionary' may imply a specific sort of book; 'Lexicography' implies a process that may culminate in a book, but it just as easily could be a process that finds completion in an electronic database. In the case of the Wilkins project, we certainly can understand the text as representing a social, and thus human, construction of a knowledge system.

2.2. Representing Form

The specific example tells us something useful about how meaning can be presented and represented. The print medium allows for a limited repertoire of forms. How these forms signify has not been adequately investigated; however, the forms are recognizable as a semiotic system, even if that semiotic system has to be reconstructed from our intuitive understanding of what a dictionary or lexicon or semantic field looks like. Lexicographical texts do not just passively mean; we understand that their function requires that they intend to show meaning. A dictionary that is also an historical artifact should have a place in the textual criticism of its contemporary artifacts: a definition written in the seventeenth century may be a better source for determining the meaning of a word in Milton than a definition constructed on historical principles in later centuries. On the other hand, the epic poem as a method for representing knowledge may have as much validity in some cultures as a grammatical diagram. Surely, we understand more about intellectual life in England if we realize that one twelve-month period comprehends both Paradise Lost and Wilkins' Essay. They both are informed by the same semiotics of printing at a basic level of analysis. They differ, however, in the larger forms: clearly, one looks more like poetry and the other looks more like lexicography. I find that the efficacy of Wilkins' definitions and lexicon can be tested against the meanings written in Paradise Lost; the definitions and the conceptual/semantic system in its turn have the potential to open up Paradise Lost. The dictionary, or thesaurus, or lexicographical text, however one prefers to label the work, exists within an intertextual frame that encompasses all previous texts and the development of texts that become a history of lexicography. Any lexicographical text implies a bibliography, a print history of each recorded word; as a printed record itself, a dictionary becomes part of a bibliographic lineage of inscribed meaning.

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[4] One cannot even be sure of the primary use and purpose of dictionaries today, much less divine answers from the past (see Greenbaum et al. 1984); does the dictionary have an ideal form? an identifiable discourse strategy? a recognized social practice or function?

[5] No doubt the general structure conforms to the organization of the best known English thesaurus by Peter Mark Roget; conforms is a rather odd word for a work published 150 years or so before the 'model' thesaurus. More important, the index to the semantically ordered "Philosophical Tables" reads very much like the alphabetical dictionary that it is claimed by its authors to be. To comprehend the dictionary fully, one does need to understand the lexicographical metalanguage used throughout; the dictionary does have the quality of an index in that it relies heavily on cross-referencing and one-word paraphrases (or synonyms). The total impression of the work is more reminiscent of Mel'cuk's Explanatory Combinatory Dictionary (Steele 1990) than Roget's thesaurus, given that a work published over 300 years before the ECD can be reminiscent.