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

4. An Example: the Word timber

The word timber may belong to the "concrete" words reportedly not well described by the OED, but at first glance the over 280 dictionary entries mentioning this word contribute only antedatings and unnoted combinations to the OED entry. The antedatings are two:

In addition, there are four phrases unnoted in the OED:

This information does not question the assumptions of the OED but only supplies missing details.

Yet a comparison of the kinds of 'definitions' in the early dictionaries with those fixed senses in the OED entry for this word that are relevant to the Renaissance period (see Figure 1) does question whether referential definition, and the fixed senses it entails, are native to the early period. OED definitions 2 and 3 are abstract, wordy, and generalized when compared to the concrete, concise, and specific treatment of timber within the Cotgrave and Thomas explanations of mareschaucées and materia. They define words as if they denote things in the world that are to be handled or seen: "stuffe to build withall" and "the body of the tree vnder the barke" appeal to the world of the senses. In contrast, the OED specifies little in "the matter or substance of which anything is built up or composed" or "Wood used for the building of houses, ships, etc." The definition in OED fixed sense 4.a, "the wood of growing trees capable of being used for structural purposes", is equally unhelpful to anyone having to select trees for timber, but Cotgrave and Thomas name trees that are and are not valuable as timber. The OED definition tells us no more and no less than is necessary to work out how timber can be identified, but it denotes nothing in the forest. The same unworldiness characterizes fixed senses 5-6. They specify objects without character (including many things other than what Renaissance people had in mind for the word, but let that pass),[5] while William and Thomas Thomas name things that can be touched and pointed to, unambiguously. A reasonable inference from these examples is that they thought words 'meant' by virtue of denoting things in the world, not by virtue of being shorthand for (as Philips says) the "genus and difference" of those things.

Figure 2 lists, by part of speech or function, words that collocate with timber in the early dictionaries. These contexts illuminate the word with a vividly descriptive, image-rich vocabulary almost completely absent from the OED definitions in Figure 1. Only two of the 47 verbs with which timber appears as an object (build and square), and none of the adjectives, can be found in the OED senses. These early dictionaries are written as if words were best explained by identifying them with, or in the context of, things in the living world that people can experience every day. There is little evidence that these early lexicographers thought of general classes and select, distinctive features or of a semantics that exists, conceptually, apart from the everyday world into which the Renaissance citizen was born, lived, and died.

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[5] OED definitions for timber-yard and timbered also err on the side of generalization, by neglecting the use of the yard for construction, and the visual aspect of boniness and spareness in the "well-timbered" man.