Dictionary writers


Samuel Johnson famously defined a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge”, and there were a few other semi-humorous comments in his dictionary, including the non-definition of ‘trolmydames’: “Of this word I know not the meaning”.
Chambers (or, as it used to be called, Chambers’s) Dictionary is well worth reading like any other book, or at least browsing from one entry to another, because it has some light-hearted definitions in its pages. I am rather sad that the definition of ‘lunch’ no long includes the phrase “a restaurateur’s term for an ordinary man’s dinner”, that was in the Mid-Century edition, but ‘fog’: “thick mist” and ‘mist’: “thin fog” are still there, as are ‘middle-aged’: “between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner” and ‘Agapemone’: “a religious community of men and women whose ‘spiritual marriages’ were in some cases not strictly spiritual”.
Chambers is not the only dictionary to repay a close reading. Einar Haugen’s Norwegian-English Dictionary, of 1965 (published by Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, and The University of Wisconsin Press) has, at the word ‘kansjke’: “perhaps, maybe: … kanskje blir vi ferdige med denne ordboka en gang – maybe we’ll finish this dictionary sometime”.
Professor Gregory James, Head of the Language Centre at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has published a weighty tome on the making of dictionaries in Tamil which all hinges on the way ‘rice’ is defined: most of the Tamil dictionaries, while paying lip service to the principle that a dictionary should never use a word in its definitions that is not itself defined elsewhere, call ‘rice’ “an esculent grain”, but never define ‘esculent’. (A History of Tamil Dictionaries, Gregory James, ISBN 81-85602-76-X)

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