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

3. What Renaissance Dictionaries Tell us about Lexical Meaning

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's great contemporary, could take or leave scholars. He took them when, by performing his plays, they paid the playing company to which he belonged, the King's Men, for a performance and so ushered him as a modern into the company of the ancients they studied. His play Volpone, for example, is dedicated to both Oxford and Cambridge "for their love and acceptance shown to this poem in the presentation". Possessing some knowledge of Latin and Greek, unlike Shakespeare, Jonson could be equally unfriendly to learning when it displeased him, as (most particularly) did scholarly studies of language and literature. He writes:

When Bacon and Jonson claim that "the study of words" is an equal partner, with bad thinking and falsification, in bad scholarship, they have those in mind who analyze words rather than those who read them, use them in speech and writing, or translate them. Their attitude to word-mongering as one of the idols of the tribe stems from an assumption, common in the Renaissance, that things can be studied, but that words are just servants to the things they denote or describe. There is little doubt that both men would have agreed that things could be analyzed in terms of categories and essential features. The question is, would either have thought that words obtain their meaning this way? Were words prescribed certain roles by philosophy and science?

Like their contemporaries, Bacon and Jonson did not have English reference dictionaries, only bilingual or "hard-word" dictionaries. These invariably give words that are equivalent to other words (whether by virtue of being synonyms or translations), not analytic definitions of the category and essential features of the thing which they denote in nature. The word dictionary occurs first in 1538, when Sir Thomas Elyot popularized the term in the title of his Latin-English bilingual dictionary. More than a dozen bilingual works for French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh followed before the end of the century, and they overtly give word-equivalences or translations for their words. I infer from this unanimity that most persons alive at this time would not have understood the question, "what does this word mean?", as anything other than a request for a translation, an etymology, or a gesture pointing to something in the world denoted by that word.

Robert Cawdrey published, in 1604, the first lexical reference work to serve English alone, and he seems not to have known what he should call it. Cawdrey's descriptive title reads:

Cawdrey adapted the method of translation -- providing English equivalents for foreign words -- to explain English "hard words". While he uses the term "understand" and writes of "interpretation", he does not give referential definitions of the kind we find in most dictionaries today. To Cawdrey and his contemporaries, word-books were either guides to word-substitution, comprising foreign-language word entries, alphabetically organized, followed by corresponding English words, phrases or sentences, or they were lists of spellings (as we find in Mulcaster's work). Nowhere does Cawdrey give any indication that his words provide thorough, logical, and spare explanations of things.

Thus when Renaissance Londoners like Jonson and Bacon went to a dictionary to discover the meaning of a word, it was always an unfamiliar word, rendered in easier English words. If we accept that these early dictionaries, as a group, express in their practice what Renaissance people thought word-meaning was, then we have to rule out referential definition and fixed senses from the start. If words were not constrained by reference to the category and essential features of the things they denoted, then lexical indeterminancy itself ceases to be a problem. It would have been so utterly a fact of language life that no one would have realized that word usage was indeterminate. The possibility of lexical determinancy never rose. Further, if Renaissance speakers did not think that words had fixed senses, OED definitions for EME words are anachronistic in method of definition. This idea appears so audacious, even if evident in the way in which dictionaries of the period were written, that surely there must be a mistake.

Locke gives the earliest citation in the OED entry for definition (of words) in sense no. 3 ("Logic, etc. The action of defining, or stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means"; my italics). In the 1690s, Locke said: "Definition being nothing but making another understand by Words, what Idea the Term defin'd stands for" (Hum. Unders. III.iii§). Earlier examples in the OED and MED (e.g., diffinicioun n.) appear to use the term definition either logically (the categorization and differentiation of a "thing", not of a word whose meaning is the category and essential features of that thing) or lexically in a non-referential sense (the translation of one sign by another sign). The implication, from evidence in the OED itself, is that speakers of Renaissance English did not think about defining words, just about defining things.

I accordingly surveyed the MED, the OED and 15 dictionaries from 1500 to 1658 to see how they used words like meaning, sense, and definition. Here are some examples:

Passages from Wyclif and Elyot, and probably the Bk. Noblesse, indicate that definition involves translation, in these instances from the Latin words senatus, Hoc est corpus meum, and Homo est animal, rationale, mortale. Thomas Wilson associates definition with any declaration (presumably including translation, but evidently quite unconstrained and unfixed), and Thomas Thomas stresses that the nature of the link between word and thing could be settled in but few words. Florio uses the word define elsewhere in this dictionary to translate Italian words associated with decision-making or specifying something (e.g., circonscriuere, decisione, and terminare) rather than describing the meaning of words. Phillips does not mention that referential definitions could be employed with words.

Occurrences of the words sense and meaning have a similar frame of reference. MED analyzes the verb menen in the context of figural interpretation (not referential definition), and sense as general interpretation. John Palsgrave's book on the French language (1530), which has large tables of verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc., first in English sentences and then in French translations, distinguishes between literal translation and a general explanation expressing the "sence".

Palsgrave apparently means, not that words have fixed senses, but rather that they do not, for he says that translation of an utterance in a foreign tongue must rely, not on individual words, but instead on some understanding of meaning that rises above the constraints of the meaning of individual words, whatever that may be. The phrase "worde for worde" suggests that words mean by being equivalent to other words, not that their meaning arises from issues of categories and features.

Thomas Thomas (for Latin) and Randle Cotgrave (for French) use the terms meaning and interpretation as equivalent to translation:

Florio (for Italian) associates word meaning with denotation and etymology, as can be seen in the following entries:

Here words routinely appear to name things ("denomination") and in themselves are subject to an interpretation or "exposition" that gives only a word's origin, that is, the word from which it comes. Florio rarely uses the noun sence, but it appears under the lemma Fare le forche:

This use of sence suggests denotation, what we observe or experience, but Florio clearly sees multiple senses or meanings as possible, though whether fixed is hard to say. Consider then his explanation of the Italian word for sence:

The apparent equivalence of sence and meaning, and Florio's association of the second word with denotation and etymology, noted above, indicates that referential definition is not behind these uses of sence.

Some Renaissance writers were perhaps aware of referential definition of words, that is, fixed senses. When Richard Mulcaster in 1582 urges his contemporaries to "gather all the words which we vse in our English tung" into a single dictionary that would give "the right writing" (spelling) as well as "open vnto vs therein, both their naturall force, and their proper vse", he may have fixed senses in mind when he speaks of the "forces" that words have (166-7). In 1649 George Snell also called for the making of a uniform lexicon of English words with "clear and complete definitions, embracing the original, derived, and figurative meanings of words" (quoted by Jones 1953: 295). More important, the hostility of Bacon and Jonson to studies of what words were (rather than for their equivalences in other languages, or the qualities of those things they stood for) shows that, at least from 1600, some persons -- perhaps etymologists like Mynsheu in Ductor Linguas -- treated words as if they were things or analyzed words as if they were.

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