CHWP B.17 Lancashire, "An Early Modern English Dictionaries Corpus"

2. What Modern Lexicographers Tell us about Lexical Meaning

In planning the Early Modern English Dictionary project (EMED) during the 1930s, to document English from the late fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century, Charles C. Fries identified seven kinds of English usage not well described by the OED. These were derived forms (e.g., adverbs created from adjectives), compounds, "concrete words" (e.g., colours), foreign words, collocations and phrases (e.g., proverbs), "abbreviations and contractions", and "derived senses" (such as common terms given special senses in a field like art). A sample EMED entry on the word sonnet cited by Richard W. Bailey confirmed Fries' expectations and satisfied two special additional requirements that Fries found wanting in the OED: one for "contemporary comments" on words (Fries takes two of seven examples from contemporary bilingual dictionaries by Randle Cotgrave and Edward Phillips), and the other for "ambiguous instances" (Bailey 1980: 203-8). Meeting additional needs identified by Charles Fries for a dictionary that returns to us what was described as a contemporary understanding of the language would have produced an EMED four-to-five times as large as the OED itself; and so Fries was forced to abandon his plan for practical reasons. However, when Bailey and his colleagues at Ann Arbor published materials for the EMED twenty years ago, they documented 4,400 words that antedate their first recorded OED occurrence, or that are not in the dictionary at all. Schäfer's work on the Elizabethan glossaries recently compiled a somewhat larger number of corrections and additions. This work has apparently not cast doubt on the reliability of the OED generally.

However, Bailey worried that historical dictionaries like the OED "have seldom recognized that the linguistic domain is paralleled by a systematic pattern of beliefs and attitudes that intersect with language and influence its use and history" and that Fries' section on comments would have in part supplied. Bailey went on to say that Fries' emphasis on "ambiguous senses" point to "indeterminacy of sense as the crucial issue that must be left unresolved" in any dictionary truly faithful to this period. The OED, of course, does not include many illustrative quotations that are ambiguous. Like most modern dictionaries, it resolves problems and arranges definitions into fixed senses; that is, it employs what are called, in the lexicographers' trade, referential definitions. These contain "the general class (category) and [...] those relevant (distinctive, criterial) features that differentiate the given referent ('thing, concept being defined') from the other members of the same class" (Benson, Benson & Ilson 1986: 204). Recently Herbert Pilch (1988: 137) has described lexical indeterminacy in modern English by appealing to synonyms such as prison, jail and penitentiary -- he calls the first a routine word and the other two members of "more specialized satellite words with highly variable denotations and connotations" -- and suggests that ordinary speakers disagree on them. These ambiguous terms can neither be excluded from a dictionary nor be defined in only distinct ways.

Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755 popularized the notion of fixed-sense definition in English. Many of his word-entries were followed by different defined senses, each exclusive of one other. There was no room for examples that were "ambiguous" and that had to be left "unresolved". As Johnson said in his preface, "The solution of all difficulties [...] must be sought in the examples, subjoined to the various senses of each word." Note that this is the first citation recorded in the OED for sense (sb. 19) in its lexical definition as "A meaning recorded in a dictionary, etc." To purify the language of the tribe, as T.S. Eliot later said, meant that its words be defined unambiguously, even if polysemic. Modern lexicographers tend to accept Johnson's "solution", which was to use the example as the way to "define" the fixed senses each word-form had. Lexicographers admit that lexical indeterminacy exists, but it is anathema to their task.

The question I want to pose here is whether early Renaissance English dictionaries give us reason to believe that Shakespeare and his contemporaries employed, or even understood, the idea of referential definition or fixed senses as practiced by the OED and most other modern dictionaries. In other words, when Renaissance speakers thought about the meaning of a word like timber, did they regard it as an abstraction from experience? Was it a category, with various essential features, to which many similar things in the world belonged, and did it, the word timber, always refer to things that may or may not have been thought to share that same category and those essential features?

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