Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made


1.a. A book dealing with the individual words of a language (or certain specified classes of them), so as to set forth their orthography, pronunciation, signification, and use, their synonyms, derivation, and history, or at least some of these facts: for convenience of reference, the words are arranged in some stated order, now, in most languages, alphabetical; and in larger dictionaries the information given is illustrated by quotations from literature; a word-book, vocabulary, or lexicon.[1]

The dictionary is a ubiquitous reference tool, found on the shelves of students and scholars alike, often given as gifts to graduates, and, more often than not, given little thought as the basis for study and a topic of research. The dictionary, any dictionary in any language, can, however, be an important resource for the study of language, orthography, literature, and culture. Sir James Murray, the creator of the modern dictionary as we know it, commented that 'the English Dictionary, like the English Constitution, is the creation of no one man, and of no one age; it is a growth that has slowly developed itself adown the ages.'[2]

One possible avenue of research is the development of the dictionary and its precursors. Glosses in manuscripts were added by individuals to understand hard words. These glosses were collected in many cases and copied into a volume known as a Liber Glossarium. A recent essay by David Ganz provides much of the background necessary to begin a study of the genre.[3] The Library holds a very early example of such a glossary. Created circa 825 in the Carolingian Empire and formerly owned by the celebrated collector Sir Thomas Phillipps, the single leaf of this Liber Glossarium glosses the words refugavit to reges, giving synonyms and examples of usage from both classical authors and fathers of the church.[4] An examination of this manuscript, and others with glosses, as well as study of the development of glosses and glossed books will certainly bear fruit for the researcher.

Another avenue of research is in the development of the dictionary itself. The first true English dictionary was that of Robert Cawdry, who published the Table Alphabeticall in 1604. Cawdry's work was very successful and was reissued in several revised editions. As a reference tool, it often provides little information. Crocodile, for example, is simply defined as 'beast.' The issues of Cawdry's Table suffered the same fate as all dictionaries; they were heavily used and then replaced. As a result, it is now nearly impossible to find a copy of the first printing. Fortunately, there are several reprints available for the student to use in research.[5] Examining early dictionaries, and particularly their prefaces, will provide much information on the history of the language, the history of orthography, and the history of words. Two recent studies, by Gabriele Stein and J�rgen Sch�fer, will assist in better understanding this history. Stein's study reviews the history of the genre from the development of glosses to Cawdry while Sch�fer's focuses on the period 1480 to 1640 and reviews the history by examining the lemmas in the dictionaries.[6]

One of the greatest triumphs of English lexicography and dictionary making was the two-volume dictionary published by Samuel Johnson in 1755.[7] Johnson planned the dictionary almost a decade before its publication and announced his intentions with a remarkable document in the form of an address to a noble patron.[8] In the preface to the Dictionary, Johnson noted that 'Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.'[9] While the history of the origin, development, and publication of the Dictionary have been carefully studied and documented,[10] there are many possible subjects that remain unexplored. The grammar and history of the language, both of which preface the dictionary proper, are a remarkable source of information on the growth of the language and bear careful study. Then, too, a close examination of the definitions that Johnson provides and the illustrative examples used could be a fascinating source for the study of trends in literature, culture, and politics. Look, for example, at some of the terms relating to dictionaries:

Lexicographer. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
Drudge. One employed in mean labour; a slave; one doomed to servile occupation.
Grubstreet. Originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet.

Or consider several definitions relating to politics and culture:

Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Pension. An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.
Excise. A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.
Tory. A cant term, derived, I suppose, from an Irish word signifying a savage.

A careful review of terms common to a people, a discipline, or a political position could provide a rich source of information on not only the creator of the dictionary, but also the times in which the dictionary was created. This might be particularly interesting if the terms were compared through various editions of the work.

While Johnson's monumental Dictionary has had a tremendous impact on English language and literature in the past two-and-a-half centuries, it was not the most popular dictionary of its time. That honor falls to Nathan Bailey's creation. First published in 1721, Bailey's dictionary was revised and reissued many times so that by 1794, it had reached the 27th edition.[11] It was almost universally accepted as the dictionary of choice. At least two eighteenth-century copies of Bailey are in the collections at Dartmouth and one is of particular interest. The fourth edition, published in two volumes in 1756, was acquired by the Library in 1811. It bears the Library's bookplate with the accession number 229, and the note 'Lib. of D. C. 1811,' attesting to its age and value to the College at the time. Unfortunately, only the second volume remains.

The fact that the volume was acquired by the College Library in 1811 and, from indications of notes and markings in the volume, has been in constant use since that time suggests another avenue of research. By studying the ownership of dictionaries and the notes found in them, it is possible to gain an understanding of who used the volumes and how they were used. A broad study of dictionary acquisitions and use in institutions of higher learning may well be a profitable line of research.

In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Noah Webster and his dictionary were the most lexicographically influential. Sir James Murray noted that 'Webster was a great man, a born definer of words. . . .'[12] With the publication of the monumental Dictionary in 1806, Noah Webster set a standard for dictionary making that would last for a century.[13] This dictionary, compared to Bailey's or Johnson's, marked major changes in lexicography. A comparison of the three would provide an interesting topic. In the year after the first edition of the dictionary, Webster published a pamphlet describing problems and errors in earlier dictionaries.[14] His pamphlet could easily be used as a guide to comparing available reference tools.

Webster's, as a synonym for dictionary, is so commonplace in the language that it even appears in lyrics. See, for example, Johnny Burke's title song from the movie The Road to Morocco, where the punning line is 'Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound.'[15] A study of references like this in song and literature might also be of interest to the researcher.

Noah Webster's success was not without detractors and imitators. The value of the dictionary, both financially and intellectually, was such that there were many attempts to copy it and sell it in this country and in England. Sales of dictionaries were such that publishers were quick to copy and to attack. Webster's mid-century publisher claimed, for example, that Joseph Worcester had borrowed Webster's work wholesale and was publishing it in England as his own work. In 1853, Worcester attacked Webster in print, publishing correspondence dating back two decades. Webster's publisher, G. & C. Merriam, responded with its own diatribe in the same year. This was followed in the next year by Worcester's response. In the latter pamphlet, Worcester prints letters of support, one of which was written by President Nathan Lord of Dartmouth.[16] A study of the pamphlets, and there are more than those noted here, as well as the supporters and detractors of each side would provide for the basis of a very interesting research project.

Without a doubt, the single most influential dictionary in the English language and perhaps in any language is the OED. Robert Burchfield, the editor of the four-volume supplement to the OED published in the period 1972 to 1986, noted that:

The Delegates of the Oxford University Press can hardly have foreseen what an extraordinary chain of events they were unleashing when in 1879 they engaged James A. H. Murray to prepare a New (later Oxford) English Dictionary. To this great work, which was completed in 1928, scholars from many English-speaking countries have added appendages, supplements, and extensions of various kinds in an unceasing quest for information about the English language.[17]

The task begun by Murray in 1879 was not finished for nearly forty years and the work exhausted Murray and his family.[18] When it was first published, it was called the New English Dictionary, but the title changed and was conveniently shortened to the now familiar OED.[19]

A key to thinking about dictionaries and the study of lexicography is the understanding that language is organic; it changes, albeit slowly. This was clearly understood by the Delegates of the Oxford University Press, who commissioned a supplement to encompass changes, new words, and new definitions. This supplement, published over a fourteen-year period, was based on a series of needs, some of which were articulated by its editor. These included the use of regional and period dictionaries, the need to expand the size and scope of the work, and some use of oral sources.[20] An investigation of the nature of additions and changes cited in the supplement could provide information regarding the changes in the English language over a broad period of time. Even the second edition of the OED has seen changes and additions in the few short years since publication. A multi-volume and ongoing set of additions and revisions began publication only four years after the massive revised edition was published.[21] Then, too, the OED is perhaps the only dictionary that merits a guide to its contents, history, and use. A review of the work done by the author of the guide can lead to further exploration of the contents.[22]

One of the many important features of the work is the depth and breadth of its coverage. Not only does the dictionary list and define, but also provides citations to the earliest usage as well as more common usage of words. A fascinating study of the 'selection of citations and the particular contribution of that process to the comprehensive authority of the OED' was published in 1994.[23] This study provides an excellent basis for further studies of the dictionary and its impact. Not all of the dictionary is serious, however, as one of the entries by the eminent philologist J. R. R. Tolkien will attest.[24] A careful study of entries in the dictionary will surely provide more such definitions.

Another interesting avenue of research may be in the study of the many formats in which the OED has been published and the impact of the use of the various formats. Aside from the standard printed versions of the first and second editions, the set has been published micrographically-with magnifying glass provided-and as a computer file.[25] As noted above, Dartmouth users have access to the second edition of the OED as part of the Dartmouth College Information System. A study of the formats could produce a fascinating look at dictionary users at the end of the century.

Finally, a study of regional language, based on regional dictionaries, could be a fascinating review of language. Many dictionaries facilitate the study of the formal aspects of language; the regional dictionary purposefully explores the less formal. One of the most interesting and useful regional dictionaries is the Dictionary of American Regional English and its Index.[26] The general editor of the dictionary has provided an excellent basis for research in the dictionary and also a fascinating comparison of DARE and the OED.[27] In the essay on DARE, Cassidy notes that 'by surveying the United States to determine the regional status of words,' the dictionary 'seeks to discover the social factors correlated with usage of regional words and phrases.'[28] Regional pronunciation is clearly different-how does one pronounce 'roof'-but how different, if at all, are regional meanings and usages? Consider the following as examples: carbonated water with flavoring can be soda, pop, tonic, or soda pop, depending on the region. The wall- or floor-mounted device used to dispense drinking water can be a fountain, a water fountain, a bubbler, a tap, or a spigot. Is it a gum band, an elastic, or a rubber band? Region defines dialect and the DARE is an important resource for this study.

The dictionary, then, is not simply the ubiquitous tool that is on every student's or researcher's shelf or mounted in one's computer. It is an everpresent source for the study of language, dialect, orthography, and history.

Back to the Table of Contents

[1] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), s. v. dictionary. Dartmouth users can also access the OED electronically via the DCIS Navigator.

[2] James A. H. Murray, The Evolution of English Lexicography, The Romanes Lecture, 1900 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), 6. This lecture remains one of the best brief views of the development of English-language dictionaries.

[3] David Ganz, 'The Liber Glossarium: a Carolingian Encyclopedia,' in Science in Western and Eastern Civilization in Carolingian Times, ed. P. L Butzer and Dietrich Lohrmann (Basel: Birkh�user Verlag, 1993), 127-135.

[4] Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Manuscript Lansburgh 3. The leaf bears the Phillipps number 36181 and was the very generous gift of Mark Lansburgh 1949.

[5] Robert Cawdry, A table alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c. (Lately augmented by my sonne Thomas, who now is schoolemaister in London.) (London: I. R. for E. Weaver, 1604). An accessible facsimile reprint was published in Gainesville by Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints in 1966 with an introduction by Robert A. Peters.

[6] Gabriele Stein, The English Dictionary Before Cawdrey, Lexicographica, Series maior, 9 (T�bingen: M. Niemeyer, 1985); and J�rgen Sch�fer, Early Modern English Lexicography, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989). The first volume of Sch�fer's study is the historical study; the second contains additions and corrections to the Oxford English Dictionary. Anyone not familiar with the word lemma is directed to the nearest dictionary.

[7] Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers. To Which are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar, 2 vols. (London: Printed by W. Strahan, for J. and P. Knapton, 1755).

[8] Samuel Johnson, The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language; Addressed to the Right Honourable Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield (London: Printed for J. and P. Knapton, T. Longman, and T. Shewell, 1747).

[9] Johnson, Dictionary, [ii].

[10] Allen Reddick, The Making of Johnson's Dictionary, 1746-1773, rev. and 1st paperback ed., Cambridge Studies in Publishing and Printing History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[11] Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary: Comprehending the Derivations of the Generality of Words in the English Tongue. And Also a Brief and Clear Explication of all Difficult Words. Together with a Large Collection and Explication of Words and Phrases Used in Our Antient Statutes and the Etymology and Interpretation of the Proper Names of Men, Women, and Remarkable Places in Great Britain; also the Dialects of Our Different Counties. To Which is Added a Collection of Our Most Common Proverbs (London: Printed for E. Bell, 1721). The 27th edition, bearing (approximately) the same title, was printed in London for J. & A. Duncan, 1794.

[12] Murray, Evolution, 43.

[13] A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In Which Five Thousand Words are Added to the Number Found in the Best English Compends; the Orthography is, in Some Instances, Corrected; the Pronunciation Marked by an Accent or Other Suitable Direction; and the Definitions of Many Words Amended and Improved (Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, Book-Sellers, and New Haven: Increase Cooke & Co., 1806). The dictionary also contained six tables for moneys of the world, ancient and modern weights and measures, divisions of time, lists of U.S. post offices, census material, and chronological tables.

[14] A Letter to Dr. David Ramsay, of Charleston, Respecting the Errors in Johnson's Dictionary and Other Lexicons (New Haven: O. Steele, 1807).

[15] Road to Morocco, lyrics by Johnny Burke and music by Jimmy Van Heusen (New York: Famous Music, Inc., 1942).

[16] Joseph Worcester, A Gross Literary Fraud Exposed; Relating to the Publication of Worcester's Dictionary in London (Boston: Jenks, Hickling, and Swan, 1853); George Merriam, Worcester's Dictionary Published in England under the Guise of Webster's Dictionary (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam, 1853); and Jenks, Hickling & Swan, publishers, A Reply to Messrs. G. & C. Merriam's Attack Upon the Character of Dr. Worcester and His Dictionaries (Boston: Jenks, Hickling & Swan, 1854). Dr. Lord's letter is printed on page 41 of the latter pamphlet.

[17] 'Preface,' Studies in Lexicography, ed. R. W. Burchfield (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), vii.

[18] See the sympathetic portrait of Murray written by his granddaughter K. M. Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words, James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[19] James A. H. Murray, ed., A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by the Philological Society , 12 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1888-1928). Introduction, Supplement, and Bibliography, by W. A. Craigie and C. T. Onions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933).

[20] Robert W. Burchfield, 'Some Thoughts on the Revision of the O. E. D.,' An English Miscellany Presented to W. S. Mackie, ed. Brian S. Lee (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), 215-216. Burchfield, in the same essay, shows the potential for revision of a single word on pages 212-213. The supplement was published as A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, ed. R. W. Burchfield, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972-1986).

[21] Oxford English Dictionary, Additional Series, ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993-), with two volumes published to date.

[22] Donna Lee Berg, A Guide to the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[23] John Willinsky, Empire of Words, The Reign of the OED (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 4.

[24] 'A short gun with a large bore, firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded, in civilized countries, by other fire-arms),' OED, s. v. blunderbuss.

[25] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971-1987); and The Oxford English Dictionary Computer File: the Original Oxford English Dictionary on Compact Disc, version 4.10 (Fort Washington, Pa.: Tri Star Publishing Co., 1987).

[26] Dictionary of American Regional English, Frederic G. Cassidy, chief ed. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985-) with three volumes published to date. An Index by Region, Usage, and Etymology to the Dictionary of American Regional English, Volumes I and II, Publication of the American Dialect Society, No. 77 (Tuscaloosa: For the Society by the University of Alabama Press, 1993).

[27] Frederic G. Cassidy, 'The Dictionary of American Regional English as a Resource for Language Study,' in Studies in Lexicography, 117-135; and Cassidy, 'The OED and the DARE: Some Differences of Practice,' in Dictionaries of English, ed. R. W. Bailey (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987), 22-29.

[28] Cassidy, 'Dictionary of American Regional English,' 119.

Back to the Table of Contents

DCLB--N97--TTRM final