- Academy Dictionaries 1600–1800 by John Considine
Scholars read boring and mediocre books—disorganized, self-indulgent, clotted, jargon-stuffed, uninspired. It’s a professional responsibility; one must stay on top of one’s subject. Scholars write those books, too. As I type this, I may have yours in mind; as you read it, you may be thinking of mine. Well, it’s all in a day’s work. Rarely does one feel it’s a privilege to read a scholarly work, but when I finished the last sentence of John Considine’s Academy Dictionaries 1600–1800, I felt that privilege—I felt intellectual satisfaction and a humane connection to the subject I had not imagined on opening the book—and knew that I would soon read the whole book again, with yet more pleasure and benefit than in the first instance.
By the academy dictionaries of the title, Considine means simply those compiled under the auspices of national language academies—like the Accademia della Crusca, in Italy, and the Académie française—and those influenced essentially by such dictionaries, though themselves academy-less. “These dictionaries constitute a tradition,” Considine writes, with the following specific characteristics:
All of them depended on the belief that the languages or language varieties which they treated were sufficiently unified and stable to be coherent objects of study, and some of them sought to promote the continuing coherence and stability of a language. All of them registered a wide, though not comprehensive, inventory of the vocabulary in general use among people of the middling and upper social ranks. All of them were to some extent alphabetized. All of them drew to some extent on a circumscribed body of usage, as defined either by good texts or by the good judgement of lexicographers. All of them were large books or sets of books, and those which reached print were always produced with marked typographical dignity.(3) [End Page 178]
Considine begins with two premises: first, “[n]o previous study has examined the academy tradition of lexicography”; and, second, “a view of the whole academy tradition at once is worth having” (4).
One could account for this tradition in a compendious tome of formidable density, but Considine approaches the task differently and better. The “view” he mentions “can only really be offered in a story which is told in a single voice, and which is short enough to be read from beginning to end” (4). Considine’s knowledge of Early Modern European cultural history is profound, as demonstrated in many of his published works—those long, like his previous also excellent book, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage (Cambridge UP, 2008), and short, for example, his many contributions to Notes and Queries and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—and he has amassed information about bibliography and lexicography of the period far and away in surplus of this particular short story. He has had to select from among that mass of information to imagine and shape the narrative, and he has done so intelligently and idiosyncratically. Considine is almost unique in his ability to tell a big story in bold strokes, into which he inlays miniatures of people, places, and organizations. The interfusion of history and sociology of knowledge, cultural history of Early Modern Europe and the role dictionaries played in it, and, of course, the history of lexicography is exhilarating. One’s sense of good fortune at reading the book is borne of these characteristics; only one person could have written this book so well in this way, and, in that sense, it is Considine’s masterpiece—at least, so far.
Considine’s approach to his subject is plain and obvious and no less worthy for that. Indeed, if the mode is narrative, it makes sense to tell the stories of the several academy dictionaries in connection to and contrast with one another. After Chapter 1, a context-setting introduction (1–8), Considine treats the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca in Chapter 2...