Vulgar English and fractious wives

Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green, Cape, pounds 25; William Hartston examines the strange profession of the linguistic trainspotter

I once had cause to look up the word "fardel" in a dictionary and the dance on which my Chambers led me has coloured my attitude to dictionaries ever since. Fardel, it informed me, besides being a pack or anything cumbersome or irksome, is also "the manyplies or omasum". The definition given for "omasum" is: "a ruminant's third stomach, the psalterium or manyplies". Now we're getting somewhere, I thought, but what's this psalterium? It's "the third division of a ruminant's stomach, the omasum or manyplies," the dictionary told me, and the manyplies, it divulged, is "the third stomach of a ruminant - the omasum or psalterium."

This excursion illustrates one of the fundamental problems of the lexicographer: in attempting to define every word in a language in terms of other words, an iterative process is set up that is bound eventually to disappear up its own fardel. When Dr Johnson, in the most celebrated dictionary of all, defined "network" as "any thing reticulated, or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections", did he think it would offer elucidation to anyone who did not understand what a network was?

The popular myth about dictionaries is simple. There weren't any until Dr Johnson came along, then he, single-handedly, collected all the words in the language, defined them in his own quirky manner and then made everyone wait another 150 years for Sir James Murray to come along and do the job properly with the OED. As Jonathon Green makes clear, the true story involves a network spanning five centuries of reticulated and occasionally decussated scholars, plagiarists, would-be social reformers and verbal propagandists.

The first English dictionaries of the Middle Ages were bilingual texts, translating from Latin - the only language for scholarship - into the vulgar form of English that was beginning to emerge from its mixed Anglo- Saxon and European origins. In the 16th century, lexicographers battled for the respectability of the English language. While academic traditionalists were inclined to resist the encroachment of English into Latin-dominated scholarship, linguistic nationalists tried to establish a formal basis for English as a language for rational and detailed discussion. Some tried to do so by adding to the language by anglicising Latin words. Others favoured the expulsion of all Latinisms from English, leaving it as culturally pure as possible. The result was the publication of numerous word-lists, thematically arranged, as propaganda for the various linguistic viewpoints. From the word-lists, the first monolingual English dictionaries emerged, each writer pillaging ruthlessly from everything that went before.

The most common form was seen in the "hard-word" dictionaries, such as those of Henry Cockeram in 1623 and Thomas Blount in 1656. The latter, we are told, was the first to include the etymology of the words. (He indicated the work to be suitable, incidentally, for "the more-knowing women" and "less-knowing men".) What made Johnson's dictionary, in 1755, so exceptional was its inclusion of numerous citations alongside the definitions and etymological information. Never had such great erudition and sheer joy of language been demonstrated in a single work.

Jonathon Green's comprehensive study is full of splendid peripheral information on the lives of the lexicographers, of which the following may serve as an example. He writes of Thomas Cooper (?1517-94): "His private life was less enviable. His wife Amy, bored by his endless ferreting among the manuscripts, was notoriously generous with her sexual favours. So celebrated was one particular affair, with the Canon of Christ Church, that her lover was bound over to avoid her company... The hapless Cooper turned a blind eye."

Such dedication is the theme running through this entire book. Of all obsessive forms of collecting, the task of the word-collector is most onerous and most important, and Jonathon Green has truly captured the nature of the animal. It would probably have been an easier and no less entertaining read if the publishers had insisted on a work of half the length. But Mr Green, with the zeal of a lexicographer, seemed not to have the heart to leave anyone out. The result is a thoroughly illuminating work, if rather heavy going at times.

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