Where Words Take Us – Source

Source is the word from where we take off this week, and I take the definition most applicable for today’s trek from the Collins COBUILD. A source ‘is a person or book that provides information for a news story or for a piece of research’.

Oxford University Press published The English Dialect Dictionary, being the complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years. Six volumes between 1898 and 1905.
Image by: Sue Rickhuss

In the context of this definition, I’d like to pay homage to the dictionaries that serve as the fount of inspiration for these weekly rambles, the ones from long before the internet, all the way back to the ancient, leather-bound volumes found in the Long Rooms of the world. 

So how old would the very first English dictionary be, you ask? According to the British Library, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabetical dates back to 1604. It was an attempt to explain approximately 3000 unfamiliar, ‘hard’ words at a time when trade, travel and innovation expanded the English language apace. If you are up for a chuckle, go and read Cawdrey’s message To the Reader, a severe critique of the poor English spoken at the time.   

Then, of course, there is the extraordinary tale of the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1857, the Philological Society of London decided it was time for a complete re‑examination of the language and the project developed to such an extent that a New English Dictionary was proposed. Professor James Murray, the editor in chief at the time, issued an appeal to the public to send definitions for inclusion in this ‘book’, which eventually became the ten volumes comprising the first edition OED. Professor Murray discovered that one man, Dr WC Minor, had submitted more than 10 000 words, and when they wanted to honour Dr Minor, the astonishing tale of The Professor and the Madman unfurled as chronicled by Simon Winchester.

But there is another narrative woven into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. That is the story of a little girl who spent her childhood under the table in the Scriptorium where her father was one of the lexicographers who collected the definitions for the first OED. She rescues a whole suitcase full of words on slips of paper that are either misplaced or discarded and realises over time that words relating to the experiences of women often go astray. While she works on the OED, she collects these snippets for the Dictionary of Lost Words to reveal a forgotten narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men.

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11 Responses

  1. One tends to forget that there used to be a wealth of information, centuries before the World-wide-Web. Thank you for the reminder. Love your column, Helene.

  2. No Samuel Johnson? Is that because he disparaged women preachers? Or just because he was smug and opinionated in general. Great article, though.

    1. Ah, Dr Johnson. I would like to say make your pick, Mr Keating, but scholarly articles have been written by men and women alike about the untruth of your man’s misogyny and his actual patronage of women, which turns your question into a rather complicated matter for the comment section, and perhaps I shouldn’t take the bait. But thanks for the compliment.

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