Randolph Quirk

English lexicography knocks Johnnie Walker into a tricuspidal fedora. Over four hundred years, and going stronger than ever.

Of course, in the 16th century the market was for ‘bilingual’ dictionaries (especially Latin-English). We had to wait upon Robert Cawdrey in 1604 for a ‘monolingual’ model – aimed at ‘Ladies … or other unskilfull persons’.

But the principles and goals are essentially the same. We don’t look up door to find that it means the chunk of material that seals off rooms and fridges. We know that. We look up meretricious for its meaning, fuchsia for its spelling, controversy for its pronunciation (to correct somebody else’s). The words from Latin (and so forth) today correspond to the words in Latin at the time of Hooker and Shakespeare: the language most familiar to the most educated, least familiar to the least. This is something of an oversimplification, but not all that much. The tradition is rich and unbroken: in Thomas Elyot’s Latin dictionary of 1538 we find aedificium ‘building’, in Bullokar’s English dictionary of 1616 the minimally anglicised edifice ‘a building’, in the 1979 Collins edifice ‘a building’.

For all their bright newness, dictionaries of the 1970s (such as the Webster 8th Collegiate, the Longman Modern English Dictionary, the revised Chambers, the 6th Concise Oxford, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Oxford Paperback) are still basically concerned with translating a relatively foreign language into a relatively familiar one. And – despite the claims of radical differences – there is a striking resemblance between them. As between members of a family. Nor is this specially surprising. However hermetically distinct the financial structure of the publishing firms concerned, the people who actually make the dictionaries are a fairly small group of people who know each other and who are as mobile as musicians. If Solti is with the Chicago Symphony one week and with the LPO the next, so also do the professional lexicographers like Clarence Barnhart, Sidney Landau and Lawrence Urdang move from one dictionary house to another. Oxford (with R.W. Burchfield and John Sykes) is comparatively stable.

When work began on the new Collins, Paul Procter and Della Summers were young conductors under impresario Urdang, and they later moved on to make dictionaries for Longman. Patrick Hanks was recruited to complete the Collins when he had finished a somewhat similar job for Hamlyn. Both Urdang and T.H. Long were earlier on the Random House Dictionary. All very cosy. But while it desirably makes for shared knowledge and a solid tradition (a euphemism, some would say, for massive reciprocal plagiarism), it is not exactly a prescription for exciting new departures.

Nonetheless, the marketplace demands that for each new dictionary, claims must be made about its uniqueness. For Collins, these rest upon coverage (words from wherever ‘English is spoken as a native language’) and size in relation to provenance (the biggest English dictionary ‘to be originated in Britain’ since 1933). This is technically true no doubt, though given the American leadership of Urdang (and Long), the American sources that constituted the lexical materials, and in any case the essentially amphi-Atlantic nature of all such enterprises today, the claim is perhaps more one of investment than lexicography. And ‘biggest’ is by no means as simple a measure as it sounds.

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