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

3. Database as Object

The third topic, the transformation of the historical record and the method and structure of meaning into what is called a database, points to the potential of enhancing our understanding and use of historical dictionaries. A master list of all terms and phrases collected in early English dictionaries will allow us to begin the process of measuring the scope of dictionariness; moreover, matching definitions and vocabulary is a task well suited for a computer-driven analysis. However, the consequences of losing the historical form and structure promotes a transformation of the meaning of the texts.[6] This does not mean the transfer from one medium to another is necessarily good or bad; rather, we are creating our own text from historical material. In this way the canon of the English dictionary is realized not as a book or set of books but as an ever-changing database. The limitations of form imposed by the printed page no longer guide the methods of representing meanings and knowledge. The negative consequence of losing the historical form could be balanced by the opportunity to construct richer forms; but we should decide beforehand just what purpose and use there is in a richer form (a task not avidly pursued by print-dictionary makers in their own right). On the other hand, I fear that the textual complexity of a work like the Essay by Wilkins will once more put it in the margins of English lexicography. It was constructed to be a database for a universal language; it was consulted as a lexical database by later lexicographers, and it inspired the work of Roget among others; while it makes sense to make it available in a master vocabulary, it also demands to be preserved as a systematically ordered database. In order to accomplish this requires a method to translate a highly integrated lexical print database into an equivalently powerful electronic database. In this case, a seventeenth-century language system (or scheme, as Wilkins would say) challenges the scope and method of twentieth-century theories of meaning and representation of meaning.

[Return to table of contents]


[6] McKenzie (1986) makes this point: "Whereas libraries have held books and documents as physical objects, computer systems have been mainly concerned to retrieve content" (p. 60). Of course, dictionaries are unlike most books and documents: they already are systems designed for content retrieval. This does not invalidate McKenzie's idea here, but once again reminds us of the complexity of a text-type that might best be named heterotextual.