- The unmasking of English dictionaries by R. M. W. Dixon
R. M. W. Dixon is one of the world’s most original, thought-provoking, and productive linguists. He has written studies of the aboriginal languages of Australia, South America, and elsewhere. His theoretical work, in particular A new approach to English grammar on semantic principles, which appeared in 1991, played an important role in reintroducing the notion of meaning to linguistics after it had been lost sight of during the heyday of generative grammar.
Now, he has written a characteristically robust book on English dictionaries. It is with some regret, therefore, that this review must report that, although D has an important point to make, he has written a muddled book—or rather, two quite different books in approximately alternating chapters. The important point that D wishes to make is that English dictionaries in general—even dictionaries aimed at foreign learners of English—fail to provide guidance on the phraseology that is associated with each word. D argues that ‘[a] dictionary should tell you when to use one word rather than another’ (his very first sentence in an introductory section entitled ‘Prologue: The work in advance’; p. ix). Chs. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 12, 13, and 15 develop this argument. Interspersed with these are seven chapters (4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 14) that constitute a historical survey of English monolingual dictionaries. Neither the historical survey nor D’s polemic on what dictionaries ‘should’ do benefits from being juxtaposed in this way.
Let us look first at the historical survey. D’s main contribution here is to correct the widespread misconception that the first monolingual dictionary in English was Robert Cawdrey’s Table alphabeticall of 1604. Eight years earlier, in 1596, Edmund Coote had published The English schoole-maister, part of which is devoted to glosses of about 1,680 words recently imported to English from Latin. D attributes this error of historiography to the American lexicographer Mitford M. Matthews (1933). In actual fact, the error (if that is what it is) can be traced back to James Murray’s Romanes lecture of 1900.
Within lexicography, two very different approaches to recording and explaining the lexicon of a living language may be distinguished. In both cases, the aim of the lexicographer is to compile an inventory of the words in a language. The first possible approach is to explain the meaning of words in light of their origin and history. The second is to establish the meaning of each word in terms of its present-day usage. Both are valid—for different kinds of dictionary users—but only the second of these approaches is relevant to D’s polemical aim, which means that almost half of his book is irrelevant to his declared purpose.
Nevertheless, there is a point to be made here, although it could have been made more succinctly. The extraordinary fact is that during the European Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the belief became established that etymology guarantees meaning. Putting it another way, scholars working on the lexicon, having noticed (correctly) that in contemporary languages many words have several different meanings, assumed (incorrectly) that the oldest meaning of a word would be its most literal meaning. For this reason, for over 300 years armies [End Page 460] of lexicographers in all of the major languages of Europe have attempted to trace and record older uses of each word and to arrange them in some sort of coherent order. Insofar as people want to read the literature of the past, this is a useful exercise—though it has nothing to do with D’s argument that ‘a dictionary should tell you when to use one word rather than another’.
To appreciate the point, the reader only has to consider the recorded history of the meanings of thousands of everyday English words such as awful (which is no longer normally used to mean ‘full of religious reverence’), nice (which no longer means ‘ignorant’), camera (which no longer means...