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The Middle English Dictionary at 71 Hi Robert E. Lewis "ardly anyone — if, indeed, anyone at all — ever sets out in .life to become a lexicographer. It almost always comes about by happenstance. One need only think of some of the best known figures in English-language lexicography: Samuel Johnson, Charles Richardson, Noah Webster, the men who started the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall), and then the chief editors (James Murray, Henry Bradley, W A. Craigie, and C. T Onions), or William Dwight Whitney, the editor of The Century Dictionary. And so it has been with the Middle English Dictionary (MED).1 Samuel Moore, a professor of English, was recruited from his academic post in 1930 to become the first editor. Hans Kurath had no lexicographical experience when he arrived at Michigan in 1946 to become the third (and to make matters worse, as his detractors pointed out, he was not even a medievalist). Sherman Kuhn, who followed Kurath as editor in 1961, also had none, but he did have the advantage of a good long apprenticeship under Kurath, beginning in 1948. A few others did have some lexicographical experience before coming to the MED. Thomas Knott, who followed Moore in 1935, had been General Editor of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language and had learned his lexicography on the job at Merriam-Webster, in Springfield, Massachusetts; Hereward Price, who 1In what follows, the abbreviation MED stands for both the published dictionary and the dictionary project that began at die University of Michigan in 1930. Readers will easily be able to tell which one is meant from the context. Dictionaries:Journal ofthe Dictionary Society ofNorth America 23 (2002) The Middle English Dictionary at 7177 was in charge between Knott's illness, and subsequent death, and the arrival of Kurath, was an assistant to Murray on the OED, the editor of a bilingual dictionary of economic terms (1926-29), and on the staff of the Early Modern English Dictionary before he shifted to the MED staff in 1940; and William Hale, who joined the MED staff as an assistant editor the same year I came, had been an associate editor and etymologist at Merriam-Webster working on the ninth edition of Webster's New CollegiateDictionary. When I arrived in August of 1982, I expected to be trained by Sherman Kuhn, as he had been by Kurath, but he was spending most of his time trying to catch up with the reviewing, and, moreover, he became ill in November of that year and for all practical purposes was out of the office until the following March; he retired soon after. My training consisted of sitting in on the formal sessions that Mary Jane Williams was conducting for the three new editors who arrived that fall, leading biweekly staff seminars at which we took up various editorial problems, and, of course, learning both on my own and from my colleagues on the staff. My first reviewing was done, half a year later, with Helen Kao, and I know I learned more about editing from her during those sessions than she learned about reviewing from me. This is what I like to call bootstrap lexicography at its most extreme. From 1982 to 1991, however, we did try hard to provide a good training program for the twenty-one new editors who came to the MED during that time, usually with formal sessions conducted by Williams, reinforced and supplemented by a mentoring system involving the experienced editors, but the fact remains that lexicography is usually and primarily self-taught, and we seem somehow to have managed over the years, as other historical dictionaries have done, and, in the process, to have created what a National Endowment for the Humanities reviewer has called, and what we like to think of as, "one of the major research contributions to English language, literature, and culture."2 The MED in its present form is based on a plan devised by Kurath in 1946. That plan had three main components and was based on what Kurath believed could be done well. First, there was to be a full display...


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