Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Madeby Jonathon Green
When James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, went to visit one of his most indefatigable contributors at what Murray assumed to be a country house address, he discovered that the elusive man was in fact an inmate of the Bradmoor asylum. Throughout time, word collectors have proven an unusual breed, and their stories fill Chasing the Sun, Jonathon… See more details below
When James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, went to visit one of his most indefatigable contributors at what Murray assumed to be a country house address, he discovered that the elusive man was in fact an inmate of the Bradmoor asylum. Throughout time, word collectors have proven an unusual breed, and their stories fill Chasing the Sun, Jonathon Green's scholarly and immensely readable history of lexicography. Contrary to Samuel Johnson's famous description of the lexicographer as no more than a "harmless drudge," Green celebrates the "drudge triumphant"; as interpreter and arbiter of language itself, the dictionary maker here proves to be closer to deity than to drudge.
Green is Britain's top slang dictionary writer, so this isn't a dry study of lexicography. If it is overly long, it is because we are given too much gossip about dueling definers, sniping censors, and petty etymologists. Before they were self-declared guardians of culture with powdered wigs, compilers of glossaries wanted to teach the necessary foreign terms for trading with and ruling over neighboring friends and foes. Green credits the Sumerians with the first such lexicons, and for many centuries dictionaries offered polyglot vocabularies for merchants and artisans. (Calepin's 11- language dictionary would be the standard until the 1500s.) There was no French-English vernacular dictionary until a royal intermarriage in 1514 made it necessary. The first Italian-English lexicon is seen as surpassing this achievement because many slang and obscene terms were included among the 46,000 headwords. Among the great lexicographers, Green is unhappy with Samuel Johnson's conservatism, criticizing him with pronouncements like: "For all Johnson's achievements, his work is ultimately backward-looking." Green considers Noah Webster to be an insufferable prude. Biblically oriented Webster couldn't omit "sodomy," but he defined it merely as "a crime against nature." We also read about a statewide ban on "obscene" dictionaries in Texas. It can be fun reading about the "F" word but less so the great fuss made about the inelegance of words like "lengthy." But ironically, for all his criticism of Dr. Johnson's conservatism, Green is guilty of defending anachronistic 19th-century German theories of etymology that have themselves been supplanted by new evidence of the monogenesis of world language.
What might have been a lively book on hot cultural issues gets bogged down in lexicographers' name-calling and shop talk.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st American Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.45(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.65(d)
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