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THE READING PROGRAM OF THE MIDDLE ENGLISH DICTIONARY: EVALUATION AND INSTRUCTIONS David Jost The Middle English Dictionary, like any historical dictionary, is based on a large body of quotations that have been extracted from texts extant from the period covered by the dictionary.1 This body of quotations provides evidence for the use and formal characteristics of every word included in the dictionary. On the basis of this evidence editors write definitions and construct form sections, both of which are in turn illustrated and confirmed by quotations carefully chosen from the same body of evidence. The process, known as the Reading Program, by which the MED has gathered its enormous body of quotations has extended over the life of the MED. In this article I intend to treat the beginnings of the Program under Samuel Moore, editor 1930-34, at the University of Michigan. In particular I wish to discuss some of the procedures used to build the collection of 280,000 quotations amassed under Moore's direction. In my discussion I draw largely on unpublished documents kept at the MED.2 These documents give us a glimpse into the workings of a large historical dictionary such as the MED. We also gain from these materials a deeper appreciation of the good sense with which Moore approached the challenging task of gathering quotations for the MED. Contemporary lexicographers, many of whom must face challenges similar to Moore's in the early 1930's, should find his ideas and methods helpful and inspiring. 113 114Reading Program of the AiED The Reading Program was an essential task at the beginning of the Dictionary. For Moore, the difficulty of the task was both lessened and increased by the fact that the MED had received the collection of about 430,000 Middle English quotations gathered for the Oxford English Dictionary and a collection of about 175,000 quotations gathered under the leadership of C. S. Northup from 1925 to 1930 when the MED had been quartered at Cornell.3 Having such material obviously seemed to lessen the amount of new collecting that would have to be done. Moore realized, however, that before he could begin collecting new material, he had to know the nature of what was in these two previous collections. "The outstanding fact that impresses me in trying to analyze our problem of producing a Middle English Dictionary is that we inherit a large body of material over the collection of which we have had no control."4 Moore realized that both collections had their limitations: The Oxford Dictionary material was collected for a dictionary which was to show the development of the English language from 1050 to the present. The problems that it had in mind were not those that concern specifically a Middle English Dictionary, and to a great extent they were the problems that engaged the attention of the English language scholars between 1880 and 1900 rather than those that engage our attention today.... The material collected by Northup was collected for the purposes of producing a Middle English Dictionary but a considerable amount, perhaps the greater amount, of this material was collected before Northup had received the Oxford material and before he had definite information as to what Middle English texts the Oxford material was derived from. Moreover, we do not know what specific purposes Northup had in view in the collection of his material, other than the general aim of producing a Middle English Dictionary.5 David Jost115 With these difficulties in mind, Moore and his staff made preparations to analyze the material in both collections in order to ascertain its "value, adequacy, limitations, and defects"and discover what supplementary material was needed.6 He knew that some rereading of texts read for the OED would be necessary, but he wanted to avoid duplication of effort. He also wanted to base new reading on a knowledge of what he already had. Once he had this knowledge he would be ready to direct his readers as to what new and supplementary material they should obtain. Underlying this design was the assumption that because each quotation would require frequent handling, it was important to obtain "new material . . . of maximum...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 113-127
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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