Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
Number 23, 2002
pp. 1-15 | 10.1353/dic.2002.0004
The Revolution of English Lexicography O: John Simpson ine hundred years ago, on 22 June 1900, the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), James Murray, made his way to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to deliver the annual Romanes Lecture. His subject was The Evolution ofEnglish Lexicography, and he was giving the lecture at a time when, after sixteen years, publication of the OED had reached the letter/. During his talk, he reviewed the progress of English lexicography since the earliest Anglo-Saxon glossaries. He detailed the emergence of the first monolingual English dictionaries in the early seventeenth century and went on to examine the work of Bailey, Johnson, Webster, and the OED. That was an exciting time in the world of lexicography. The OED was well established as the premiere historical record of the vocabulary of English; the Grimms' Deutsches Wörterbuch (1852-1960) was making steady progress in Germany; the great Dutch dictionary, the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (de Vries, te Winkel, and others [1882-1998]), had been publishing relentlessly over the previous twenty years; Littré's Dictionnaire de la Langue Française (1863-1872) was finished; and many other major lexical texts were either in progress or had been completed throughout the academic world. Murray concentrated in his lecture on English lexicography and suggested that the historical method had reached a climax with his OED. He wrote carefully and painstakingly about the achievement, as the lecture drew to an end: Original work, patient induction of facts, minute verification of evidence, are slow processes, and a work so characterized cannot be put together with scissors and paste, or run off with the Dictionaries:Journal oftheDictionary Society ofNorth America 23 (2002) John Simpson speed of the copyist. All the great dictionaries of the modern languages have taken a long time to make; but the speed with which the New English Dictionary has now advanced nearly to the half-way point can advantageously claim comparison with the progress of any other great dictionary, even when this falls behind in historical and inductive character. Be the speed what it may, however, there is the consideration that the work thus done is done once for all; the structure now reared will have to be added to, continued, and extended with time, but it will remain , it is believed, the great body of fact on which all future work will be built. It is never possible to forecast the needs and notions of those who shall come after us; but with our present knowledge it is not easy to conceive what new feature can now be added to English lexicography [emphasis added]. At any rate, it can be maintained that in the Oxford Dictionary, permeated as it is through and through with the scientific method of the century , Lexicography has for the present reached its supreme development . (Murray 1900, 49) No doubt there is an element of self-congratulation here. For Murray the progression of English lexicography had led almost necessarily to the pinnacle represented by the OED. In his words, it was "not easy to conceive what new feature [could] be added" to the sum of achievement which the OED represented. So what were the features of the English dictionary to which no addition could be made, and has the last hundred years since that time opened any new avenues along which lexicography can develop? Many of the features to which Murray alluded can be dated back to an analysis which Richard Chenevix Trench laid before the Philological Society during the 1850s in On SomeDeficiencies in OurEnglish Dictionaries (1857/1860). This was the series of papers which provided the initial impetus for the compilation of what became known as the Oxford English Dictionary. By 1900 Murray would have had several classic lexicographical features in mind. A serious scholarly dictionary should contain the following: • more or less comprehensive coverage of the vocabulary of the language; • detailed documentary evidence for each usage from printed records, including the earliest known occurrence of each word and meaning; • clarification of the semantic development of each word over time through a hierarchical sense structure; The Revolution in English Lexicography • extensive demonstration of the etymological development of each...