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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Chasing the Sun by Jonathon Green

Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996. ISBN: 0-8050-3466-8

I started reading this book several years ago, then put it aside, and only just recently took it up again, and finished it. Such that, when I was done, I had to go back and reread the Introduction. I have to confess that the Introduction and the last Chapter, Chapter 15, titled “The Modern World,” are, in my view the best parts of the book, and probably the only parts really worth the effort. I'll try to explain why I think that as I go along.

This book is a truly scholarly history of dictionary making, with a special and primary focus on dictionaries of the English language. However, it starts way back in the Middle Ages, when many if not most written manuscripts apparently were accompanied by glossaries, or lists of the “hard words” found within the text. Often these lists contained many Latin, Greek or Hebrew words, as well as some in whatever vernacular dialect was featured in the manuscript. I'm sure I'm grossly oversimplifying the situation, but if you want more detail, go to the book. You won't be disappointed, as excruciating detail is something it provides plenty of.

The book traces the history of these “hard word” lists up through time, and shows how they were gradually supplemented by other lists of specialized vocabularies, such as the cant or slang of the criminal class, or the jargon of various professions. Purely practical in nature, early word lists saw no point in including the ordinary everyday variety of words, since everyone already knew what they meant! It was only much later that the idea of capturing an entire language by listing ALL of its words, both the easy ones AND the hard ones, came into being.

But that leads us to a very real problem, THE primary problem confronting any dedicated lexicographer. It is patently impossible to completely capture in any one word list, a modern language entire. For by the time you have written down every word known to exist, the language will have inevitably moved on, with new words having been created, and new meanings devised for existing words.

The general public does not understand this, nor particularly care about it. The public, especially in America, it seems, wants a dictionary that it can refer to as a kind of final authority. The expressions “Is it in the dictionary?” or “It's not in the dictionary” have entered the language as part of the common parlance and thinking. Practically every household had a dictionary, even if it was 25 years old, and by no means an unabridged version. And referring to the dictionary had a kind of finality, a kind of authority to it that was, and is, as our author makes clear, entirely unjustified, but no less standard operating procedure, for all that.

Part of what makes the final chapter so fascinating a read is its description of the furor and fury that was unleashed on the hapless editors of Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (W3, 1961), which differed from the Second Edition in having gone from a prescriptive to a descriptive approach to the language. Here's how the author puts it:

In Britain, where the role of the dictionary is primarily seen as that of a description of the national language, a dictionary passed muster if it offered exactly that, and as substantially as possible. In America, where readers wished to be told, via the dictionary, which words they could use and how best to use them, the dictionary was perfectly acceptable as long as it laid down those laws. However, once one moves beyond the practical, dictionaries take on certain abstract properties, and it is when these are perceived as being tampered with or worse still discarded, that the public, usually so acquiescent, starts to kick up a fuss.

These properties fall into roughly four main categories: the dictionary as a guardian of linguistic purity; the dictionary as a repository of society's collective knowledge; the dictionary as a guardian of absolute and eternal truth; and of the moral and ideological values of society. Once again, in all of these, one sees the lexicographer in priestly mode.

It has been suggested that none of these concepts truly holds water, any more than do the credulous myths that underpin religion. The “real” dictionary cannot come up to the standards that its users with to impart to it. But in the end, that hardly matters: if a dictionary on these lines is more fantasy than fact, it is still the fantasy that attracts the buyers.

Here are a few choice quotes from the remainder of this fascinating discussion of the “dictionary wars” that ensued. “Asked to use their own brains, to make their own decisions, the dictionary buyers and the critics, journalists, and scholars who interceded for them, rebelled.” “It might be suggested that for a large 'unabridged' dictionary such as 'Webster,' with its 450,000 headwords, there should in any case be no place for a pre- or proscriptive word list. The Role of such a dictionary is to display the language to as great an extent as possible.”

It was not, however, what many commentators—typically the amateur, but hugely respected “word men” of the press, some teachers, and certain rival lexicographers—wished to hear. If Webster, the very cornerstone of American lexicography, and thus the repository of every aspect of linguistic yeas and nays, was casting aside its responsibilities, what hope remained? For its critics W3 represented a gross abnegation of responsibility. It was not a dereliction of duty they intended to let go by.

The attacks on W3 began in a piece in the New York Times of October 12, 1961. . . the writer accused Merriam Webster of surrendering to the “permissive school;” eight days later the Chicago Times used the term again, and wondered how a writer could possibly write decent English if “Webster” refused to say what exactly was “good English.” The idea that the writer might be able to make up his or her own mind was not, of course, entertained . . .

The area in which W3 appeared to terrify its critics most was in its dropping of such labels as “colloquial” and “informal” and replacing them by such as “nonstandard,” “substandard,” and occasionally, “slang.” What was especially upsetting was the inclusion of the word ain't, which was noted as being “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers,” even though its definition included the demurrer “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech.”

Philip Gove (W3's chief editor) . . . had no doubts: “For us to attempt to prescribe the language would be like Life reporting the news as its editors would prefer it to happen,” he remarked, . . . and later added, “Lexicography should have no traffic with guesswork, prejudice, or bias, or with artificial notions of correctness and superiority. It must be descriptive and not prescriptive.”

But this did not satisfy the critics. American just weren't ready to take responsibility for their own linguistic decisions. They still wanted (and apparently still want) “the dictionary” to tell them what was right and wrong. Sorry, no can do!

If this linguistic tempest in a teapot intrigues you, by all means read at least the intro and final chapter of this painstakingly researched book. If you truly desire to know the ins and outs of every printed book that led to the current state of dictionary making in the English language, read the book entire. Otherwise, you can probably give it a pass. Recommended for anyone with sufficient interest in the subject.

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  • Hi Will, I have a certain interest in such books that deal with the history of language; but I found your blog looking for people who like to read certain genres. If you enjoy Arthurian fiction, and fantasy (which your blog entries include) then may I suggest a title to you to try? "Outcasts Of Skagaray" can be previewed by reading the sample chapters on www.threeswans.com.au If you want to know more about this author, my blog is http://threeswans.blogspot.com Feel free to visit if you wish. It would be a joy if you read my book and enjoyed it. There are other reader reviews online if you want to check the internet. Whatever happens, best wishes.

    By Blogger Andrew Clarke, at 8:38 PM  

  • Will, your pieces should now show in the Librarian's Book Revoogle.

    By Blogger ricklibrarian, at 5:25 AM  

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