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BAGPIPE AND DISTAFF: INTERPRETING DICTIONARY ILLUSTRATIONS MICHAEL HANCHER For more than two centuries lexicographers have invested much of their authority in the pictorial illustration of words. Although scholarly and historical dictionaries usually do without illustrations, reputable popular and reference dictionaries make generous use of them. When a dictionary does provide illustrations, the stated purpose is usually to clarify the verbal definitions. John Locke recommended this practice long before it became established. In a discussion of lexicography in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke proposed that certain objects, "which the Eye distinguishes by their shapes, would be best let into the Mind in Draughts [i.e., drawings] made of them, and [such illustrations would] more determine the signification of such Words, than any other Words set for them, or made use of to define them" (523). The first edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary to include illustrations was published some years after Webster's death, by George and Charles Merriam in 1859. Although their motives for introducing illustrations were partly commercial, the Merriams justified their practice by quoting Locke. They claimed that "it is obvious that a correct pictorial representation of the object or thing to be defined, will often aid in giving a clearer conception of that object than could be conveyed by any mere statement in words" (lxxxi). Since 1859 this "obvious" principle has been reiterated many times, by many dictionary editors, but it has never been properly examined. The general assumption behind it, that pictures are somehow easier to understand than words, needs to be justified or corrected. Actual illustrations show striking differences in method, not only among different dictionaries but also between the covers of any particular dictionary; variables such as criterion (why illustrate one thing rather than 93 94Interpreting Dictionary Illustrations another?), medium (drawing? photograph?), scope (illustrate the thing in isolation or in a typical context?), caption, and relation to verbal definition all need systematic study. Furthermore, the practice of dictionary illustration has from the outset expressed dominant cultural values. I will here explore only one of these concerns, that is, the scope of a dictionary illustration. Consider, for example, two illustrations of the word distaffcurrently published in different dictionaries by Merriam-Webster. The definitions are similar enough. In Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary distaffis defined as "a staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool in spinning." In Webster's Third New International Dictionary the definition is "a staff for holding the bunch of flax, tow, or wool from which thread is drawn in spinning by hand or with spinning wheel." The illustration in the New Collegiate (fig. 1) shows in profile a chair of Greek design, in which is seated a woman who wears a long, flowing classical gown and who holds in her left hand what appears to be a short stick with a bunch of some indeterminate material attached to the top, from which hangs a thread weighted at the end, which she spins with her right hand. For now I want to bracket and set aside the problems that can easily upset such a "straightforward" interpretation of this picture: such problems as how we can identify the minimal plane outline as representing a chair—let alone a chair of Greek design—or whether we can identify what kind of substance is wrapped around the end of the distaff ("flax, tow, or wool"?), or how we can tell that the woman is spinning the thread with her right hand. Assuming such questions to be unproblematic we still have the problem that this picture shows a good deal more than "a staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool in spinning"; that is, it is more than just an illustration of a distaff. Compare the corresponding illustration in Webster's Third (fig. 2). Here straightforward interpretation suggests that we are looking at a stick, or rather the top of a stick, split near the end into several strips, which have been swollen or expanded away from the original line of the stick into a lemon-shaped bulge, which has been secured and strengthened by some Michael Hancher95 circular strips attached around its circumference. There is no wool, no thread, no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 93-110
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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