Thursday, March 29, 2012


Quotations in Dictionaries

To the passages quoted and cited in Starved and Well-Fed Lexicons, I should have added these comments by Samuel Johnson, from the Preface to his Dictionary (1755):
There is more danger of censure from the multiplicity than paucity of examples; authorities will sometimes seem to have been accumulated without necessity or use, and perhaps some will be found, which might, without loss, have been omitted. But a work of this kind is not hastily to be charged with superfluities: those quotations which to careless or unskilful perusers appear only to repeat the same sense, will often exhibit, to a more accurate examiner, diversities of signification, or, at least, afford different shades of the same meaning: one will shew the word applied to persons, another to things; one will express an ill, another a good, and a third a neutral sense; one will prove the expression genuine from an ancient authour; another will shew it elegant from a modern: a doubtful authority is corroborated by another of more credit; an ambiguous sentence is ascertained by a passage clear and determinate; the word, how often soever repeated, appears with new associates and in different combinations, and every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language.
For a devastating criticism of the omission of a quotation from a dictionary, see A.E. Housman, The Confines of Criticism: Cambridge Inaugural 1911, ed. John Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 41-43:
Who was the first and chief Latin writer to use the Greek word for a cat, αἴλουρος? The answer to this question can be found in many Latin dictionaries, but not in the latest and most elaborate. The five greatest universities of Germany have combined their resources to produce a thesaurus linguae Latinae, whose instalments, published during the last twelve years, run to 6,000 pages, and have brought it down to the letter D. The part containing aelurus appeared in 1902; it cites the word from Gellius, from Pelagius, and from the so-called Hyginus; but it does not cite it from the fifteenth satire of Juvenal. Here we find illustrated a theme on which historians and economists have often dwelt, the disadvantage of employing slave-labour.

In Germany in 1902 the inspired text of Juvenal was the text of Buecheler's second edition. That edition was published in the last decade of the nineteenth century, when the tide of obscurantism, now much abated, was at its height, and when the cheapest way to win applause was to reject emendations which everyone had hitherto accepted and to adopt lections from the MSS which no one had yet been able to endure. Buecheler, riding on the crest of the wave, had expelled from the text the conjecture, as it then was, aeluros, and restored the caeruleos of the MSS. That was enough for the chain-gangs working at the dictionary in the ergastulum at Munich: theirs not to reason why. That every other editor for the last three centuries, and that Buecheler himself in his former edition, had printed aeluros, they consigned to oblivion; they provided this vast and expensive lexicon with an article on aelurus in which Juvenal's name did not occur.

Nine years, only nine, have elapsed. aeluros in Juvenal's fifteenth satire is now no longer a conjecture but the reading of an important MS. Buecheler is dead, his Juvenal has been re-edited by his most eminent pupil, who happens to be an independent thinker, and aeluros is back again in the text. The thesaurus linguae Latinae, not yet arrived at the letter E, is thus already antiquated. Now it is the common lot of such works of reference that they begin to be obsolete the day after they are published; but that damage, inflicted by the mere progress of knowledge, is inevitable: what is not inevitable is this additional and superabundant damage, inflicted by the mental habits of the slave.

Everyone can figure to himself the mild inward glow of pleasure and pride which the author of this unlucky article felt while he was writing it; and the peace of mind with which he said to himself, when he went to bed that night, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant.' This is the felicity of the house of bondage, and of the soul which is so fast in prison that it cannot get forth; which commands no outlook upon the past or the future, but believes that the fashion of the present, unlike all fashions heretofore, will endure perpetually, and that its own flimsy tabernacle of second-hand opinions is a habitation for everlasting. And not content with believing these improbable things it despises those who do not believe them, and displays to the world that stiff and self-righteous arrogance of the unthinking man which ages ago provoked this sentence from Solomon: 'the sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason.'
See also Tom Keeline, "Vir in uoluendis lexicis satis diligens: A.E. Housman and the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae," Housman Society Journal 36 (December 2010) 64-76.


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