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Chasing The Sun: Dictionary Makers And The Dictionaries They Made, By Jonathon Green, Jonathan Cape Pounds 25

Christopher Hawtree tells of the fate awaiting compilers of dictionaries.It is sometimes more enjoyable to consider words in their alphabetical order rather than rearranged into the stuff of poetry and prose. However much one may relish dictionaries, the very thought of compiling one is enough to induce hebetude*. Use of which word illustrates one need for a dictionary, but it has never simply been a question of mastering "hard words".

A dictionary is as much a part of the age as the works which its compilers draw upon, and any out-of-date volume can offer a picture of language, whose written form is but an echo of that which existed on people's lips. In chronicling those who have given so much time to an often-thankless task, Jonathon Green - himself a lexicographer - reminds one that dictionaries did not emerge, fully-formed, with Johnson's great work.

In his hefty history, its passages of print peculiarly long and not easy on the eye, Green works from printed sources familiar to specialists both of slang and regular language. He begins in Classical times and, many strange figures later, arrives in the era of the CD-Rom, by which point one feels syncoptic*. Green's words spill out; sentence after sentence demands to be reined in. These rampant clauses suggest that the book was written on a screen. The result is something which, like a dictionary, one will dip into rather than read through.

And there are indeed such splendid stories as the one about the hapless 16th-century lexicographer Thomas Cooper, who, brought up by an impoverished tailor, became Bishop of Winchester, a preferment given him by Queen Elizabeth, an admirer of his scholarly labours. Cooper's wife, Amy, was less enthralled by these, which prompted her to fill her time by bestowing sexual favours upon one and all - including the canon of Christ Church, who was bound over to avoid her company everafter. Worse, perhaps, for Cooper was - in the words of John Aubrey, the 17th century diarist - Amy's becoming "irreconcilably angrier with him for sitting up at night so,compiling his Dictionarie . . . threw it into the fire and burn it. Well, for all that, the good man had so great a zeal for the advancement of learning, that he began it again." That way lies madness, not that this need be an obstacle to lexicography.

So James Murray - undoubtedly sane editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and the man who taught electricity to Alexander Graham Bell - discovered when, after much prevarication, one valued contributor, Dr W C Minor, agreed to meet him. Murray duly arrived at a country house, where he was met by an official-looking man who explained that he was not Dr Minor, but the Governor of this, Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. The man in question was a patient there. So dismal a fate had been set in train by Minor's career as an army surgeon for the North in the American Civil War when, to his distress, he was forced to brand a deserter and became convinced that a pack of Irishmen was now out to avenge him.

It is unlikely that advancing technology will eradicate such human caprice. In our time, the CD-Rom has been accompanied by politically-correct demands which, in their way, recall Webster's invention, when referring to poultry, of white and grey meat because he did not like to refer to breast and thigh.

All dictionaries depend upon this human factor - one trusts, for* hebetude - dulness, * syncoptic - given to dizziness, * chalcenterous - having bowels of bronze, first coined from two Greek words in a letter to The TLS in 1946 example, that the third edition of the OED, due early next century, will be pruned of the myriad, less-than rigorous quotations from detective fiction foisted upon it by Marghanita Laski while she reviewed these books for The Listener. All those can be called up on the CD-Rom edition.

It seems certain that the CD-Rom will exist in parallel with printed versions of a book. It is easier to browse than to scroll down. In opening up new territory, or areas that once involved much time, it also reduces serendipity. To give an instance which is not as frivolous as it might sound, I was once investigating authors' hypochondria and a first port of call, naturally enough, was Johnson's definition of the term. En route, my eye lighted upon his definition of haemorrhoids and, in that instant, came the idea for another piece, an exploration of that disease which, unmentioned by Green, must have been the occupational hazard of so many who fill Chasing the Sun. Robert Burchfield chose his word carefully when describing the OED staff as "chalcenterous"*.

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