All my eye and Betty Martin

Roy Harris

  • A Dictionary of Mottoes by L.G. Pine
    Routledge, 303 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9339 X
  • Newspeak: A Dictionary of Jargon by Jonathon Green
    Routledge, 263 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9685 2
  • The Oxford Miniguide to English Usage by E.S.C. Weiner
    Oxford, 412 pp, £1.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 19 869127 0
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English: Volume II by A.P. Cowrie, R. Mackin and I.R. McCaig
    Oxford, 685 pp, £12.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 19 431150 3
  • A Dictionary of the Teenage Revolution and its Aftermath by Kenneth Hudson
    Macmillan, 203 pp, £12.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 28517 4
  • A Dictionary of Catch-Phrases by Eric Partridge
    Routledge, 278 pp, £5.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9989 4

Lexicographical apparatus, as Walter Ong recently reminded us in Orality and Literacy, was ‘a very late accretion to language as language’. It was also quite a profitable accretion for at least two classes of language-user: printers and publishers. It still is, to judge by the way dictionaries continue to proliferate. One gets the impression that the dictionary industry has rarely been in finer fettle since the invention of alphabetical order. Looking back over the industry’s history, what is perhaps surprising is how long it took for anyone to realise that the combination of alphabetic sequence and lexical entry provides the book-production party with a winning ticket that outdreams all the Kinnocks-and-Hattersleys. (When will they commission a Dictionary of Ephemeral References? It will come, never fear.) For there is literally no end to the list of potential subjects eligible for the dictionary treatment.

Not until the 17th century did the word dictionary (so my dictionary says) come to be used to mean not just a work listings words and their meanings but also ‘a book of information or reference on any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged alphabetically’. So in the 17th century, presumably, the penny had dropped: the expansion of the dictionary business had begun. Today it has colonised most of our leisure pastimes and pursuits, not to mention our more humdrum everyday activities. We live surrounded by dictionaries, and modern civilisation would break down without them. This fact is only superficially concealed, if at all, by the circumstance that not all of our dictionaries are actually called ‘dictionaries’: for instance, that indispensable dictionary of names and numerals we look up every day happens to be called a ‘telephone directory’. But a moment’s reflection makes it clear that the telephone directory in practice qualifies under the description ‘a book of information or reference on any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged alphabetically’. Moreover, it employs the canonical dictionary format of lemma and interpretamentum: the subscriber’s name and address is provided with a telephonic meaning in the form of a number.

Fortunately, dictionaries may be not merely instruments of utility but also objects of delight. One recent addition to the ranks which can claim to offer more entertainment value than most is L.G. Pine’s Dictionary of Mottoes. Which householder among us has not had a gas cooker installed and subsequently been overwhelmed by curiosity to know what the motto of the Gas Council is? No need henceforth to waste a telephone call to discover that the Gas Council’s employees do not know. Today we can all look it up in Pine. What is the motto of the Gas Council, did someone say? Three guesses. Not ‘Cookabllity for ever’. Nor ‘Wonderfuel gas’. Nor even ‘Never send one fitter when you can send three.’ Much less probably, it turns out to be In libertate consilium. Editor Pine sternly refuses to translate this as ‘Free advice’ but gives instead ‘Counsel in liberty’. An enigmatic slogan if ever there was. Much clearer is the motto of the Electricity Council, which sounds like a dreadful warning to all dissatisfied customers: ‘The past is but the prologue.’ It takes British Rail to find a motto designed to reassure the great Latin-speaking travelling public: Velociter et securiter. Expecting something equally robust and Classical from the Coal Board, one looks up Pine to discover that, disappointingly, the Coal Board seems to have no motto. It could at least have followed the lead of the 60th Regiment of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, whose motto consists simply of the names of the places most renowned in its history. (Perhaps a list of pit closures for the Coal Board?) Glancing through the pages of Pine’s dictionary affords fascinating glimpses into not only the history of motto-making but the psychology of motto-bearing too. Why, one wonders, does Newquay Urban District Council have a Cornish motto which is either obscene or incomprehensible? (Tight-lipped Pine says darkly, ‘Untranslatable at present’: we look forward with bated breath to future editions.)

So many and varied are the available fields for a modern lexicographer to plunder that we nowadays see signs that the dictionary industry itself is not quite sure what it ought to be at. A case in point is Jonathon Green’s Newspeak dictionary, which falls clumsily between two stools, if not more. The eye-catching 1984 timeliness of the title is sabotaged by a subtitle announcing ‘A Dictionary of Jargon’, which immediately gives the game away. Whatever Orwell’s Newspeak may have been, it was certainly not jargon, which is a perfectly healthy, natural linguistic phenomenon. Jargon is the inevitable outcome of the specialised communicational needs of professionals, who require terms for things and situations which they, as a matter of necessity, have to deal with every day of their lives, but which do not enter into the world of the man on the Clapham omnibus except as occasional ‘technical’ matters. The Newspeak of 1984 was nothing of the sort. Newspeak was a diabolical form of language-planning, aimed at preventing ordinary people from communicating about – or even thinking about – certain ideas deemed dangerous by a prevailing political authority. To conflate these two quite different notions under the title Newspeak betrays philological incompetence of alarming depths, and it is difficult to acquit Green or his publishers on this charge.

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