Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made

Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made

by 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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This book, which its author, a London dictionary editor, describes as "a little flesh on lexicographical bones," offers readers everything they could want to know about dictionaries, as well as what many would never think of asking. This "universe in alphabetical order," as Anatole France put it, exists in nearly nine of every 10 American homes. One encounters in this work the quirky, obsessive makers of the Dictionarium, the Glossographia, the Ortis Vocabularium, the Medulla grammatica, the Promptorium parvulorum, the Medulla grammatica, the Worde of Wordes, the Abecdearium, the Manipulus Vocabulorum, the Bibliotheca Scholastica and other anticipations of the one essential book. Eventually Green gets around to the celebrated, idiosyncratic Samuel Johnson and the American monomaniacal crank Noah Webster, who remains a national institution. Green also deals at length with the burgeoning of slang and the dilemmas presented to lexicographers by once-taboo words. Despite some anecdotal trimmings, this is basically an encyclopedic work and, as such, will appeal only to the most dedicated of word nuts. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
In a readable and interesting history, Green (The Encyclopedia of Censorship, Facts on File, 1990) traces the evolution of the dictionary from its earliest beginnings in Sumeria to today's state-of-the-art CD-ROM products. He examines the h1istory of the genre and the biography of its creators. His strength lies in the deft handling and illustration of the power of words and the significance of definition. Green recounts the language philosophy of Nazi Germany and the various and changing definitions of the word Palestine, for example, in order to make the point that words have power and those that define words by "definition" have power. Ultimately, Green has written an exploration of culture and its verbal content. His book will fascinate all those interested in lexicon and language and, with the index (not seen), should be helpful as a research tool. With its lengthy bibliography, the inclusion of photos, and Green's wonderful examples, this work is well worth including in all public libraries and in academic libraries where there is a perceived need.Neal Wyatt, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., Va.
Booknews
An engaging history of lexicography from pre-Babylonian Sumeria, where the first lexicon was created, to the present day. Explores the influence of language on culture and vice versa, as well as the lexicographers themselves, whose obsession with words so profoundly affected the world around them. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Everything we could want to know, and more, about the long history of dictionary writing.

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780805034660
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
11/28/1996
Edition description:
1st American Edition
Pages:
510
Product dimensions:
6.45(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.65(d)

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