How do you pronounce biopic, synod, and Breughel? - and why? Do our cake and archaic sound the same? Where does the stress go in stalagmite? What's odd about the word epergne? As a finale, the author writes a letter to his 16-year-old self.
Review of Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest
Mugglestone, Lynda, ed. (2002) Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest. Oxford University Press, 304pp, Paperback ISBN 0-19-925195-9 $29.95. Oxford Studies in Lexicography and Lexicology (Hardback ed., 2000).
The hardback edition was announced in http://linguistlist.org/issues/11/11-1565.html
Simon Horobin, University of Glasgow
Lexicography and the OED is a collection of papers which examine the unique contribution to lexicography provided by the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The authors adopt a range of linguistic approaches and frequently draw upon unpublished materials in the archives of Oxford University Press and the Murray papers.
In the opening chapter Lynda Mugglestone provides an introduction to the volume by considering the achievement of the OED within its historical context. Mugglestone stresses the novelty of the historical approach adopted by Murray and the earliest editors and philologists associated with the Dictionary, who set out to 'show more clearly and fully than has hitherto been done, or even attempted, the development of the sense or various senses of each word from its etymology and from each other'. This introduction provides a fascinating survey of the kinds of problems Murray and his associates were faced with on a daily basis, including Murray's frustrating correspondence with Victorian poets who were generally vague and unhelpful in response to requests for definitions of words which appeared in their works, leading Murray to comment: 'One cannot take the language of poets too seriously'. While this opening chapter offers many interesting glimpses into the making of the Dictionary it is necessarily selective and for more detailed treatment interested readers are encouraged to read K.M. Elisabeth Murray's brilliant (1977) biography of Murray.
The following 11 chapters cover a range of aspects of the OED, including a critical survey by Elizabeth Knowles of the numerous readers who contributed to the Dictionary's ambitious reading programme, the majority of which were unpaid volunteers. As well as the volunteer readers, the Dictionary drew on a large team of editors and subeditors whose Herculean task was to classify the vast quantities of slips submitted by the readers. Despite the importance of their work for the Dictionary project as a whole, these subeditors were also frequently volunteers working alone and following a series of written guidelines which demanded considerable editorial sophistication. For instance subeditors identified the dominant spelling of a word, divided its illustrative quotations into parts of speech, arranged them into chronological order and provided provisional semantic classifications and definitions. As well as shedding further light on the work of these subeditors, this volume provides a select list of individuals involved in the production of OED, with brief bibliographical details, as an appendix.
Another important contribution is Charlotte Brewer's essay on 'OED Sources' which demonstrates how the OED on CD- ROM may be used to produce statistics concerning the number of quotations derived from individual works, authors or periods. Such figures allow an insight into the privileging of particular periods or authors and highlight areas where the OED coverage is patchy. Such figures demonstrate the prominence quotations from canonical literary authors played in the making of the Dictionary, and the comparatively slight use made of non- literary works, such as scientific texts. However Brewer's figures also show that the privileging of major literary authors can be overstated. For instance it is often claimed that for the Middle English period Chaucer's works were plundered for quotations to a much greater extent than other texts, and this has led to overstated claims concerning Chaucer's contribution to English vocabulary (see Mersand 1937 and Cannon 1998). However while Chaucer's works did yield a massive 11,902 quotations, other Middle English texts, such as the anonymous Cursor Mundi and the Wycliffite translation of the Bible provided greater numbers: 12,772 and 11,971 quotations respectively. As Brewer rightly points out, studies of this kind tell us more about lexicographical practice than the importance of such authors for the development of the language.
The treatment of Early English sources is taken up by Eric Stanley in 'OED and the Earlier History of English', which surveys the different policies adopted by the OED editors in their use of Old, Middle and Early Modern English materials. Stanley assesses the decision to include only Old English vocabulary which survived after 1150, arguing that the inclusion of words obsolete by this date would have increased the task by only 10% rather than by the 'immense' number of words estimated by Murray. The idea of producing a dictionary on historical principles, arranging citations and senses by date, was not the OED's innovation but was in fact first attempted by Charles Richardson in his A New Dictionary of the English Language, Combining Explanation with Etymology (1836-7), although Richardson's etymologies were often highly dubious. Stanley considers the availability of Old and Middle English texts to the OED editors and concludes that in most cases the editors performed a very thorough analysis considering the limited tools available. However the treatment of Old and Middle English materials is not consistent and frequently varies according to editor, with Bradley appearing as the most accomplished etymologist. Stanley also considers the question of the privileging of certain major literary authors, particularly Shakespeare for the Early Modern English period, over more minor contemporaries such as Elyot, Holland and Nashe. He agrees with Brewer's conclusions that to use the OED to determine a particular author's contribution to the English language is to use the dictionary inappropriately, to ask questions of it which it was not designed to answer. Stanley also interestingly stresses the subjectivity and taste that govern the inclusion and exclusion of certain sources, accepting that the preference of Shakespeare over minor writers may be justified on grounds of literary taste, and that he would give 'a wilderness of words from Nashe, Holland or Felltham for guidance on one crux in Shakespeare' (p. 147).
Questions of inclusion and taste and considered by Lynda Mugglestone in 'The Standard of Usage in the OED' which looks at attitudes towards variation and standardisation. By including variant pronunciations and spellings and any word that appears in the written record, Murray attempted to remain non-prescriptive in his approach: 'I am not a judge of the language-only its historian'. This attitude incurred a good deal of criticism, particularly for the inclusion of words which reviewers considered errors, slang, or even contemptible barbarisms. The use of a dictionary as a didactic text is to some extent inevitable and Murray's desire to avoid prescriptivism was undermined by the public who often regarded it as providing a linguistic norm. Murray himself came to recognise this: 'I have to consider responsibilities...if I give a preference to Dissyllable [rather than disyllable] multitudes will follow the standard' (p. 196). Despite the editor's claim to descriptive impartiality, prescriptive attitudes may be found in the work of the readers and subeditors who were often guided in their work by notions of correct and incorrect usage. Such condemnatory attitudes sometimes infiltrated the entry in OED itself as in the use of 'allude' in the sense 'to refer' (OED sense 5) which is supplemented by the comment 'Often used ignorantly as = refer to'. Mugglestone demonstrates how the use of a wealth of labels designed to convey stylistic status and register, such as 'affected', 'pedantic', 'vulgar', 'ludicrous', 'illiterate', served to undermine the dictionary's claim to descriptive impartiality. While such instances need to be seen within the wider context of the dictionary's admirable stance against proscription, these examples demonstrate how notions of 'correct usage' inevitably become attached to the usage described by the OED.
It is not possible in a short review to do justice to the wealth of detailed insights and range of topics offered by this volume; others not discussed here examine Murray and his European context, and the treatment of morphology, pronunciation and scientific vocabulary. In sum this volume provides an excellent scholarly assessment of the contribution of the OED and suggests many potentially fruitful areas for further research. One minor complaint concerns a degree of overlap across some of the contributions, concerning references to Murray's life or the practice of earlier Dictionary editors, especially Johnson, which, while perhaps inevitable, might have been removed by judicious editing.
Cannon, Christopher (1998) The Making of Chaucer's English: A Study of Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mersand, Joseph (1937) Chaucer's Romance Vocabulary. Brooklyn: Comet Press.
Murray, K. M. Elisabeth (1977) Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. Yale: Yale University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Simon Horobin has research interests in Middle English language and literature, the history of English, manuscript studies and humanities computing.