Defining moments in time

29th October 2004 at 01:00
THE DICTIONARY MEN: their lives and times. By R W Holder. Bath University Press pound;30

SAMUEL JOHNSON'S DICTIONARY. Edited by Jack Lynch. Atlantic Books Pounds 19.99

THE FUTURE DICTIONARY OF AMERICA. Edited by Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. Hamish Hamilton pound;14.99

One of the more famous definitions in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language is of a lexicographer: "a harmless drudge". Not only is it self-deprecating, it appears to be remarkably prophetic, judging by the stories R W Holder recounts in his portrait of six of our foremost dictionary makers. Certainly Johnson nearly bankrupted and destroyed his family by the long, unremunerative hours he devoted to the creation of what is often described as the first English dictionary.

In fact, it wasn't. Dozens had already been compiled, notably the Dictionarium Britannicum by Nathaniel Bailey, which appeared in 1730. This and two others are acknowledged by Johnson and, even after Johnson's work was published in 1755, Bailey's was considered of greater merit for the rest of the 18th century. By the turn of that century, fashions had changed and Johnson's prevailed until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. His was, we know, the dictionary used by Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Dickens.

Besides Johnson, Holder provides interesting accounts of the struggles of James Murray, the principal begetter of the Oxford; the battles of Noah Webster, who created what, for many, is still the standard dictionary of American English; and of Peter Mark Roget, who classified words in subdivisions to create his thesaurus based on the method pioneered by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus to classify plants. Also included are lives of George Smith, who edited the Dictionary of National Biography and Joseph Wright, creator of the English Dialect Dictionary.

The book's subtitle is precise. Its six sections do not narrowly focus on the task of lexicography but embrace the historical events that formed the background to the creation of each dictionary. So, for example, the chapter on Webster sets the compilation of a truly American dictionary in the context of a young nation asserting its political and linguistic independence. Because George Smith worked for the firm that published Jane Eyre, there is a lengthy portrait of the Bront sisters. The creation of each dictionary is also placed in the context of its maker's other works and interests.

While Johnson's attempts to keep solvent and his relationship with Boswell are well known, it is interesting to discover how Webster developed his dictionary from his successful school spelling textbook, which attempted to simplify words and so led to some of the differences between American and British spellings. It is also intriguing to read of Murray's tribulations.

At one stage, a rat invaded his filing system. At another, his address book containing contact details of all his contributors went missing. So, too, did all the entries under H, P and Q. H eventually turned up in Florence, having been accidentally taken there by a sub-editor; Q was found in Loughborough but P had to be re-written.

Sadly, the book contains some blemishes in its own proof-reading and one can only wonder how a book from this academic press can complain that Johnson uses the letter "f" instead of "s", apparently unaware that the long or medial "s" familiar from Elizabethan texts is not the same character as a lower case "f".

Such details have, however, been standardised in a new and welcome reprint of selective entries from Johnson's dictionary. Its editor has not attempted to produce a working dictionary but has preserved, uncut, the more famous entries and howlers, together with words that have changed their meanings and those found in the writings of his contemporaries but now rarely used. It makes for illuminating browsing and could fuel much language study in the classroom.

How long The Future Dictionary Of America will survive is debatable as it is a witty attempt to imagine what an American dictionary will look like in 30 years' time, "when all the world's problems are solved". Entries range from the succinct (Kurt Vonnegut defines "rumsfeld" as "one who can stomach casualties") to mini-essays. They have been contributed by some 80 authors and encompass simple jokes: "Falater: a sandwich or other edible usually collected from a large breakfast. To be eaten as lunch". Then there is "ineffable: not to be solicited for sexual intercourse". Others are satiric. "Iraqification" is the removal of the letter "u" from words to help American schoolchildren and the military. "Guantanamo" comes from the Arabic: "a purgatory, an intermediate floor of hell". Others are simply hopeful: "Elderly: wise and sexy as in 'that chick is mad elderly'." There is also a lavish section of coloured cartoons and a 22-track CD. It will make an ideal comfort blanket for any Democrat - or democrat.

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