Mizzled

Roy Harris

  • Longman Dictionary of the English Language by Randolph Quirk
    Longman, 1875 pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 582 55511 6
  • The Private Lives of English Words by Louis Heller, Alexander Humez and Malcah Dror
    Routledge, 333 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0006 4
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson
    Viking, 173 pp, £7.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1653 2
  • The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Joseph Shipley
    Johns Hopkins, 637 pp, $39.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 8018 3004 4
  • A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partidge and Paul Beale
    Routledge, 1400 pp, £45.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9820 0

On 10 May 1933 an undergraduate at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, wrote in her diary a description of the clothes she was wearing on that sultry summer’s day. The description includes the phrase blue celanese trollies. The diary entry in question was not published until 1984, by which time the diarist, Barbara Pym, had become a cult figure in English literary circles. By that time, too, the words blue celanese trollies needed translation. Neither celanese nor that particular meaning of trolley are to be found in the recent Longman Dictionary (the phrase being roughly equivalent for later generations to blue artificial silk knickers, blue nylon pants or blue synthetic briefs). The passage of time both makes the philologist’s lot, and makes it a difficult one. The chronological hiccough between Barbara Pym’s diary entry and its eventual publication also succeeded in outdating the entry trolley in Partridge, where it is described as a word for underpants in the 1950s, possibly emanating from the Royal Navy. History is a hard taskmaster for lexicographers, if history’s faithful servitors they aim to be. More frustrating still, Miss Pym’s late contribution to our knowledge of the terminology of 20th-century underwear still leaves us without a glimmer of an answer to the question: ‘But why trollies?’

Primitive word magic tends to be replaced in all literate societies by two kinds of fascination. One is a fascination with the question of what makes some verbal Usages ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’. The other is a fascination with words as living repositories of cultural history, present tokens of a debt to the collective past. Sometimes the two strands are intimately – even indecently – entangled: witness the early Greek preoccupation with questions of etymology. Sometimes, too, word magic lingers on clandestinely in odd lexical nooks and crannies, as in Medieval superstitions about naming, or modern inhibitions about swearing. But these are throwbacks to the psychology of a preliterate era. Once words have been finally divested of their supernatural status, their challenge to rational inquiry seems to take only two basic forms: prescriptive and historical. We seek explanations which are either one or the other: if possible, both.

This civilised rejection of word magic gives rise to two quite different skills of lexicography. One is the skill of sounding authoritative and convincing. The other is a skill required for all good storytelling: knowing how to appeal to the imagination. Both qualities are evident in the great wordmen of the Middle Ages, from Isidore of Seville onwards. Unfortunately for modern lexicography, it came of age only in the 19th century, and as a result emerged permanently tainted with the currently fashionable positivist philosophy of science. ‘Getting the facts right’ took priority. Dictionaries came to be seen as mere lists of lexicological ‘facts’, vouched for independently of the lexicographer by attested ‘examples’.

But the positivism was bogus: the examples were always carefully selected. Classic examples of the 19th-century attitude towards lexicography were Murray in England and Emile Littré in France. Neither man was lacking either on the authoritarian or on the imaginative side: but both chose to present themselves, in accordance with the spirit of the age, as mere collectors and arrangers of lexical information. However, the information given reveals immediately the cultural bias of the collectors. They give pride of place to literary usage, and what for them ‘establishes’ a word’s correct employment above all is attestation in the published works of reputable writers.

In 20th-century lexicography, two trends can at present be discerned. One is essentially a continuation of the orthodox 19th-century approach, and it is to this that the new Longman Dictionary of the English Language belongs. Some effort is nowadays felt to be needed to correct the 19th-century imbalance which manifestly favours the written word over the spoken. Longman has utilised the spoken material collected by the Survey of English Usage at University College London. But whether using this material has made all that much difference is another question: for the main data-base for Longman is still the corpus of some thirteen million quotations amassed by Merriam-Webster. So the claim that this dictionary presents ‘a record or inventory of the English language as it is really used in writing and speech’ should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. It is evident that the preponderance of written evidence cannot but produce a somewhat slanted ‘record or inventory of the English language’ when one considers for a moment how much more English is spoken than is ever written. Are there no English words in use today which never appear in print at all? It is difficult to believe that there are not. But Longman does not list them, any more than Murray or Littré would have done. Furthermore, Longman consistently under-represents the diversity of ways of pronouncing English words, both in this country and overseas. Coffee, for example, is recorded as having just one pronunciation, as is pressure, while there is no mention of the regional us with a final voiced sibilant, nor the very common American habit of saying leisure in a way that rhymes it with seizure. All this squares ill with the boast in Longman’s Preface about a ‘wide coverage of variations’ in spoken English.

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