Milestones: The dictionary

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As any English student will attest, the Oxford English Dictionary is really, really great. It is an endless treasure trove of historical information, essay inspiration, general geeky interest, and above all, of words – over 600,000 of them. 

As lexicographer James Howell remarked, “Words are the life of Knowledge, they sett Free / And bring forth Truth.” In Oxford, particularly, most of us live and breathe words – we revel in them, manipulate and analyse them. And dictionaries are their homes. They are safe havens where humanities students can find something concrete – a solid, objective definition amongst the airy fairy what-does-it-all-mean-ness of literature and literary theory. 

Yet the earliest dictionaries were far from objective. They were a snapshot of the language used in a particular era, each word selected specifically to try to control the language we use. Dictionaries began in the Renaissance as multilingual works intended for teaching the classical languages, which at that point were considered much more literary than English – the language of the common folk. 

The birth of the monolingual dictionary caused what can best be described as a ‘lexicographical shitstorm’ as everyone tried to decide precisely which words should be listed and why. Should a dictionary be reserved for “hard usual words” to help said “common folk” understand their own language? Or should dictionaries be reserved exclusively for more eccentric words specific to the vocabulary of the time? 

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is often considered the first ‘modern’ dictionary. In the preface, Johnson wrote that “dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true” – one of the many pearls of wisdom from the man who defined “Monsieur” as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman”. Johnson’s musings do, however, provide us with an interesting parallel: dictionaries and watches. Can dictionaries be seen as an attempt to capture language in a particular instant – and as such, as an attempt to control time? What makes the OED special is its status as a historical dictionary, providing examples of how the meaning of words has changed over time, as well as giving sources, categories, word – maps and timelines. 

Yet we are and have always been terrified by language change. There is continual controversy about the use of the word “literally” to mean exactly the opposite of literally – “I was literally starving”. Perhaps change in language threatens our illusion that listing words and their definitions gives us some sort of control over language – and therefore over time. 

Or perhaps we are just put off by the idea of someone in 100 years looking through the OED at words introduced in our generation and seeing the 2006 example, “lol. i know what ur hintin at.”  

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