Violent but Charming

The Dictionary of Old English explores the brutality and elegance of our ancestral tongue.

By Ammon Shea

“Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” So said Samuel Johnson, according to James Boswell—and if any man can get away with making a pithy, slightly nonsensical, yet somehow illuminating statement about the merits of dictionaries, repositories of our language, it is Johnson.

Watches and other kinds of clocks may not “go quite true” yet, but they have managed to attain such a degree of exactness that the point is largely moot. The most accurate form of timekeeper available today, a cesium fountain atomic clock, is expected to become inaccurate by no more than a single second over the next fifty-plus million years (although it is by no means clear what other clock might be used to judge the world’s most accurate timekeeper).

What of dictionaries? Have they been improved to the same extent as clocks? Is there somewhere a dictionary that is expected to be wrong by only one word in the next fifty million years?

It not only has not been done, it cannot be done, for there is no such thing as a perfect dictionary.

There are a number of reasons that a perfect (or even near perfect) dictionary is an impossibility: First, any dictionary is out of date before it is even finished. For instance, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary began publishing in 1884 and finished some forty-four years later, by which point the editors had to begin revising it, adding the words that had assumed prominence in the intervening years. During the time that it was being compiled, the language that it defined was continuing its incorrigible and immutable process of mutability. Semantic change waits for no man.

Second, no dictionary could ever truly be comprehensive. One might very well say that a perfect dictionary would include all the words in a language. But if this were so, it would include not only the hundreds of thousands of common and not-so-common terms found in an unabridged dictionary, but also several million scientific words that are used by only a handful of professionals. To include all possible words would swamp the vernacular of the language in a sea of jargon and specialized terminology. So a perfect dictionary presents a conundrum of size: If it doesn’t include all the words, it is incomplete, and if it does, it has too much information.

Third, and perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle of all, dictionaries are intended to reflect a language as it is used, whether spoken or written, and this can never be done in anything less than an incomplete fashion. In the United States alone there are now hundreds of thousands of books being published every year. To read all of them (and many are doubtless not worth reading) and keep track of all of the word usage and meanings within would require an army of erudite madmen.

And so having established that there is no such thing as a perfect dictionary, it really is quite delightful to discover that a small team of researchers has decided to not be bothered by this minor point, and is attempting to write one anyway.

They are creating a dictionary that includes not only every single word in a specific language, but every shade of meaning that each of these words has ever had. They can do this because they have managed to collect and organize every single word of text (that we know of) that native speakers of this language have written.

This is possible because no one has been a native speaker of this language for more than eight hundred years. The lexicographic work in question is the Dictionary of Old English (DOE), currently being compiled at the University of Toronto. This team of researchers, now led by Antonette diPaolo Healey, is working from a corpus that contains every known piece of Anglo-Saxon text (some three thousand items) and is fully searchable by computer.

The DOE corpus is comprehensive, and contains about four million words, which makes it almost five times the size of the collected works of Shakespeare. It represents at least one copy of every piece of surviving Anglo-Saxon writing, although in some cases the corpus has more than a single copy of a work if it is in a different dialect or from a different date. So, by attempting to catalog a dead language (with a vocabulary more or less immune to normal linguistic change) that has a relatively minuscule number of texts to draw from, Healey and her cohorts are putting together what is, at least theoretically, a perfect dictionary.

The question is, Why do we need a dictionary of Old English?

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