The long read: For centuries, lexicographers have attempted to capture the entire English language. Technology might soon turn this dream into reality but will it spell the end for dictionaries?
In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a theory to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summertime, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form.” It’s been deleted since, but we caught it ,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.
In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (” You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike “), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually.” Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually instead fast ,” Paton said.” Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising’ run ‘”.
Spending 12 months tracing the history of a two-letter word seems dangerously close to folly. But the purpose of a historical dictionary such as the OED is to give such questions the solemnity they deserve. An Oxford lexicographer might need to snoop on Twitter spats from a decade ago; or they might have to piece together a painstaking biography of one of the oldest verbs in the language( the revision of the entry for “go” tracings 537 separate senses over 1,000 years ).” Well, we have to get things right ,” the dictionary’s current chief editor, Michael Proffitt, told me.
At one level, few things are simpler than a dictionary: a list of the words people use or have employed, with an explanation of what those words mean, or have entailed. At the level that matters, though- the level that lexicographers fret and obsess about- few things could be more complex. Who employed those words, where and when? How do you know? Which words do you include, and on what basis? How do you tease apart this sense from that? And what is ” English ” anyway?
In the case of a dictionary such as the OED- which claims to provide a “definitive” record of every single word in the language from 1000 AD to the present day- the question is even larger: can a living language be comprehensively mapped, surveyed and described? Speaking to lexicographers induces one wary of using the word ” literally”, but a definitive dictionary is, literally, impossible. No sooner have you reached the summit of the mountain than it has expanded another hundred feet. Then you realise it’s not even one mountain, but an interlocking series of scopes marching across the Earth.( In the age of” global English”, the metaphor seems apt .)
Even so, the quest to capture “the meaning of everything”- as the writer Simon Winchester described it in his volume on the history of the OED- has absorbed generations of lexicographers, from the Victorian worthies who put in a” Committee to collect unregistered words in English” to the OED’s first proper editor, the indefatigable James Murray, who spent 36 years shepherding the first edition towards publication( before it killed him ). The dream of the perfect dictionary goes back to the Enlightenment notion that by classifying and regulating language one could- simply perhaps- distil the essence of human supposed. In 1747, in his “Plan” for the English dictionary that he was about to commence, Samuel Johnson declared he would create nothing less than” a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened “. English would not be merely listed in alphabetical order; it would be saved for eternity.
Ninety years after the first edition appeared, the OED- a distant, far bulkier descendant of Johnson’s Dictionary- is currently embarked on a third edition, a goliath project that involves overhauling every entry( many of which have not been touched since the late-Victorian era) and adding at least some of those 30,000 missing words, as well as attaining the dictionary into a fully digital resource. This was originally meant to be completed in 2000, then 2005, then 2010. Since then, OUP has softly fallen mentions of a date. How far had they get, I asked Proffitt.” About 48% ,” he replied.
The dictionary retains a quiet pride in the lexical durations to which it will- indeed, must- run. Some time in the late 1980 s, Proffitt’s predecessor as chief editor, John Simpson, asked the poet Benjamin Zephaniah about the origins of the noun “skanking”. Zephaniah decided that the only way to explain was to come to OED headquarters and do a private, one-on-one performance. Skanking duly went in, defined as” a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist, and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat “.
The tale touches something profound: in catch a word, a sliver of lived experience can be observed and defined. If merely you were able to catch all the words, perhaps you could define existence.
The first English dictionary-makers had no fictions about capturing an entire culture. In contrast to languages such as Chinese and ancient Greek, where systematic, dictionary-like runs have existed for millennia, the earliest English vocabularies didn’t begin to be assembled until the 16 th century. They were piecemeal affairs, as befitted the language’s mongrel inheritance- a jumbled stew of old Anglo-Germanic, Norse, Latin and Greek, and Norman French.
The language was perplexing enough, but in the mid-1 500 s it was getting ever more confusing, as political upheavals and colonial trade bring fresh waves of immigration, and with it a babel of recently “Englished” vocabulary: words such as “alcohol”( Arabic via Latin, c1543) and “abandonment”( French, c1593 ). Scientific and medical growths added to the chaos. In 1582, the schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster issued a frantic plea for someone to” assemble all the wordes which we use in our English tung … into one dictionarie “. Such a book would stabilise spelling, a source of violent disagreement. Also, there would eventually be rules for ” proper use “.
In 1604, a rector named Robert Cawdrey attempted a stopgap answer: a slender volume entitled A Table Alphabeticall. Aimed at” Lady, gentlewomen and other unskillful persons”, it listed approximately 2,500″ hard usuall terms”, less than 5% of the lexis in use at the time. Definitions were vague- “diet” is described as” manner of foode”- and there were no illustrative quotes, still less any attempt at etymology. A Table Alphabeticall was so far from being completist that there weren’t even entries for the letter W.