Word Up

Chasing the Sun:
Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made

Jonathon Green

THERE'S SOMETHING IRONIC in the way conservatives get upset over improper language, all the while using "liberal" as an epithet bearing no relation to its dictionary definition, that is, "marked by generosity and openhandedness... broad-minded, tolerant." Of course, they're simply claiming that language means whatever they say it means. It's their language after all. The problem is, most everyone else feels the same way.

The recent ebonics debate is just the latest of the recurrent struggles that have shaped and reshaped language since before the dawn of human history. Certainly, there are better and worse ways of using language, but better and worse for what purpose? Is there one purpose to which all others must bow? Or does a plurality of purposes ensure that language will always change and grow in more than one "best" direction at the same time?

The history of dictionary-making gives us a good lens for examining such questions by bringing other controversies from other times into focus so they can be compared with our own. Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green (author of several dictionaries of jargon and slang) tells the complicated story of how the dictionary format we take for granted came into being over thousands of years. It shows how the seemingly most impersonal, dispassionate of references results from an amazing array of remarkable individuals whose passions and visions affect our everyday language now. Dictionaries have helped foster learning, promote both faith and trade, build nations, consolidate authority, empower the downtrodden, and fulfill many other purposes with political overtones.

The oldest dictionaries were made in ancient Sumeria more than 4,300 years ago, when the conquering tribes of Akkad created word lists in cuneiform script on clay tablets that translated terms between two very different languages. Two millennia later scholars were compiling lists of hard words with definitions, first appended to the texts in which they appeared, then to collections of texts, then finally to stand alone. Medieval practice organized words thematically, reflecting the worldview of Scholastic philosophy, while the quickened pace of the 16th century gave rise to multilingual dictionaries with up to 11 languages in one volume. Later, the rise of modern nation-states gave impetus to monolingual dictionaries.

Specific lexicographers left the stamp of their politics as well. Methodist pioneer John Wesley wrote the first dictionary for a mass audience as part of his campaign to bring literacy to his working-class followers. John Comenius, bishop of Moravia, saw universal education as the "panacea for all human ills." He also believed that rather than cram young minds with grammar, one should "follow the footsteps of nature... and bend the teaching to the child's mind." His 1657 Orbis sensulium pictus ("Illustrated World of Things We Can Feel") was by far the most influential wordbook with pictures, impacting three different traditions alive today: the illustrated encyclopedia, dictionary, and textbook, as well as, Green suggests, the entire field of multimedia education.

In the world of English dictionaries, political influences and nuances are everywhere evident. The earliest ones were all in dialects, because no standard English existed in the early 8th century. Since then, lexicographers have both modernized and expanded the language, all the while struggling to hold it back or purify it. An early modernizer was Thomas Elyot (16th century), notorious for the words he coined as part of his humanist agenda to pull English out of the Middle Ages, "scandalous" words such as involve, exactly, activity, democracy, education, frugality, loyalty, sincerity, and society. On the flip side the greatest example is Samuel Johnson, who cut out "socially unacceptable" words like gambler, glum, ignoramus, and sham, and did away with dialect altogether.

Ironically, Johnson--a most conservative man--was the greatest innovator among lexicographers: His most distinguished invention was the modern dictionary itself. As Green puts it, "Before Johnson lexicography was composed of a number of developing strands. In his work the strands were united, setting standards for whatever followed." Indeed, virtually everything found in dictionaries today appeared together in his Dictionary of 1755. Eventually Johnson abandoned one key conservative aim, that of fixing the language in its highest form, only because the project proved impossible. But his politics determined definitions: Tory was defined as "one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolic hierarchy of the church of England," while Whig was simply "a faction." In turn, such meaning-making influenced his choice of sources and the substance of the quotations he used to illustrate usage.

America's greatest dictionary-maker, Noah Webster, was equally (and somewhat oppositely) political in his intent, driven by the desire to distinguish American English in terms of vocabulary, usage, and spelling. His fundamental aim was to write a dictionary for the masses. In doing so, Webster established the prescriptive tradition in American dictionaries--a tradition
so strong that it triggered a great uproar in 1961, when Webster's Third International followed the lead of the Oxford English Dictionary by shifting to a descriptive approach toward language. Then, as with the current ebonics debate, the experts were the heretics, arguing against a fixed hierarchy of right and wrong, and for a "living" language.

Through these and a score of other rich anecdotes, Green introduces the dictionary as a deeply-rooted cultural artifact, the product of history, social needs, and cultural values. In language, truth is made as much as found; and as Johnson discovered, language cannot be fixed. (In the preface to his Dictionary, he compared his pursuit of linguistic perfection to the vain pursuit of the sun.) As Green's book makes clear, only an endless race could have brought the language that defines us so far.

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