Abecedarians in the war of the words

CHASING THE SUN: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green, Cape pounds 25

AS A lexicographer, Jonathon Green presents his fellow abecedarians in a poor light: querulous, conceited, or mad. Photius, the ninth-century Byzantine scholar, used to reply to his friends' letters by correcting their grammar. (He was also the first book reviewer.) Dr W C Minor, who defined tens of thousands of words for the OED, did his work from Broadmoor after being driven mad by the American Civil War and killing a stoker in Lambeth. Noah Webster bowdlerised the Bible.

The idiosyncrasies of lexicographers are amplified by the insecure economics of the profession. Dictionary-making takes years, if done painstakingly and well, and a lexicographer with no other source of income must beg and scrape where he can - hence Johnson's celebrated rebuke to Chesterfield, willing to shell out more than pounds 10 only once the work was nearly completed: "Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?" Sales are uncertain: Johnson's dictionary sold fewer than 4,000 in the ten years after publication. Worst of all, the results are easily plagiarised.

These economics explain some of the more harmless self-puffery, such as Eric Partridge publishing a slang lexicon pseudonymously, as "Vigilans", and recording in it his special debt to Eric Partridge, then repaying the compliment to Vigilans under his own name. Accusations of plagiarism can also lead to protracted warfare. When the dictionaries appear within a short time of each other (within a decade or two), the earlier lexicographer will often attack the later, in the press or in subsequent editions, because the latter is eating its predecessor's food. This lay behind the two most celebrated wars of words, between Blount and Phillips in the 17th century, and between Webster and Worcester in 19th-century America.

Blount's Glossographia of 1656 was followed two years later by Phillips, who had lifted the bulk of New World of Words, uncredited, from his predecessor, despite heaping scorn on him in his preface. Blount struck back, refuting Phillips definition by definition, rebuking him as a "beggarly, half-wited (sic) scholar". This war ended with the death of both men and their replacement by Johnson as authors of the "Unidentified Authorising Dictionary".

Webster and Worcester went beyond personal hostility. Webster consciously defined his 1828 dictionary as American, even though, as Green points out, very few of his words are distinctively American (apart from their spelling). Worcester, following him again by two years, was framed by default as the Anglophile, elitist choice. The choice of dictionary became a question of national pride, and Webster won out, his more egregious errors, mostly of etymology, being fixed by others in later editions.

Modern battles over dictionaries usually centre on political correctness of one sort or another: either dictionary-makers are censured for including too many "dirty" words without comment, or for being insufficiently prescriptive. The battle over Webster's Third International in 1961 grew beyond a dispute over whether the dictionary should have admitted the word "ain't" into a question about Western civilisation. The debate over W3, as the dictionary is known to its friends, is in effect a clash between the prescriptive attitude of the general public, who want a dictionary to set a standard of "good English", and the descriptive bias of the professionals, who want a dictionary to describe a language as it is. Language, certainly the English language, is too tricksy a thing for the prescriptivists ever to win out; yet, as Green acknowledges, every lexicographer leaves some words out, and is therefore to some extent prescriptive.

Dirt depends on date: Aelfric got away with "beallucas" in 1000 AD; in 19th-century America "leg", "trousers" and "sneeze" were beyond the pale. Abusive epithets are harder still: Green tells the history of "Jew" as a verb meaning to cheat, defined in this sense by the OED early in this century (and used in this sense by Michael Jackson in 1995). Green sides firmly with the descriptivists: "include the word, opprobrious though it undoubtedly is, and mark it as derogatory, offensive, whatever. But do not on any account exclude it."

Green's book wavers between scholarship and readability. It meanders entertainingly into the byways of English letters, but its determination to name every lexicographer since the Akkadians and Sumerians cuts down on the space available for the more entertaining episodes. In keeping with the subject, the reader has to hunt for the juicy bits, but aimless browsing yields unexpected rewards.

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