A well-defined corpus

Empire of Words:
April 14, 1995

It is difficult to write the history of an empire without turning it into an apologia for imperialism. The bigger the empire, the bigger that risk becomes. If John Willinsky's book registers a few colonial complaints along the way, it nevertheless manages to end up with a ritual two-and-a-half cheers for the Oxford English Dictionary's protracted reign.

The portraits of the emperors that Willinsky provides are among the most entertaining items for the general reader. We are shown them all as great men for their times - the saintly Victorian patriarchism of James Murray, the bourgeois charm of Robert Burchfield, and now the corporate bureaucracy of John Simpson and Edmund Weiner (who no longer "edit" the dictionary, but self-effacingly "prepare" it).

Willinsky's perspective on this 140-year-old lexicographical empire, ruled from Oxford since 1879, is distinctly transatlantic and faintly schoolmasterish. He clearly believes dictionaries are indispensable. They keep the young in linguistic order, the rebellious in check and the honest citizen in good heart. They are a comfort in times of verbal distress and a very present help in all kinds of orthographic trouble. Where would education be without them?

Where education is with them is another question, but one in which Willinsky shows no interest. This is doubtless one of his strengths as historiographer of the OED. Like the editors whose empire-building he admires, he does not doubt for one moment that the highest lexicography is a disinterested and noble calling, its purpose being to produce a work that, as he puts it, "both documents and contributes to our understanding of linguistic authority". Which is as coy a circumlocution as anyone has ever produced for "laying down the rules".

Why or whether we have to accept the rules does not interest Willinsky either. Rather, his attitude seems to be that since these are the rules (that is, since the OED is accepted as authoritative, like it or not), it is better that we should understand why the rules are as they are. And this is the point of his investigation of the OED's dominion and its development.

Unfortunately, Willinsky does not have the historical interest in lexicography itself that could have made this interesting. He misses the opportunity to situate the OED in the framework of the European lexicographical tradition. There is no comparison of the OED's approach, with that of the great Continental lexicographers. (Fureti re gets one passing mention, the brothers Grimm two, Littre three.) Consequently, there is in the end no balanced assessment of the OED's lexicographical method.

Less fortunately still, Willinsky apparently has no interest in the OED's etymologies. And this is a disastrous lacuna. For any dictionary that claims, as the OED does, to be based on "historical principles" must in the end stand or fall by the quality of its etymologising.

What concerns Willinsky much more - in fact almost exclusively - is where the OED gets its material. This is important, but it does not have quite the paramount importance in lexicography that Willinsky implies. As much if not more importance attaches to the use of that material by the lexicographer. Two lexicographers could work from the same sources and produce different analyses of the lexicon. The same applies mutatis mutandis to linguistic analysis of any kind. Lexicography is no exception.

Like successive editors of the OED, Willinsky is clearly obsessed with quotations. Thus a big question for him is whether or not the OED has too many quotations from Shakespeare. The issue has, of course, been raised many times before - even before the publication of the first edition was complete. But although he devotes two chapters to Shakespeare citations, Willinsky offers no answer. He points out rather laboriously what was already obvious from the beginning; namely that Murray through the OED played an important part in the Victorian canonisation of Shakespeare. But whether and in what sense there was ever any lexicographical justification for that canonisation (either in the name of the OED's own proclaimed principles or any others) are questions in the end passed over.

This is one of a number of cases where what Willinsky at first seems to be offering with one hand is speedily withdrawn by the other. His reluctance to pronounce adverse judgement on the OED verges at times on self-contradiction. Take the much-trumpeted claim to comprehensive coverage of English. Willinsky himself points out a number of non-random gaps, but can still blandly say "the OED makes no pretence, with the odd exception as we have seen, to being the whole of the English language". The odd exception happens to be the pretence put up by the editors themselves, a pretence most recently maintained by the claim in the preface to the second edition that the work "will continue to be an accurate and comprehensive register of the whole vocabulary of English". So now you see it, now you don't. The OED claims to be comprehensive; but, at the same time, makes no such claim.

One aspect of this claim concerns the OED's unwavering commitment to scriptism. This Willinsky defends, while revealing it is soon to be breached (by the long overdue decision to include data from oral sources). What makes one doubt his judgement on such matters is his citing with apparent approval the explanation offered to him by Simpson. The OED's steadfast refusal to accept words not attested in writing sits ill with its eager lapping up of Marghanita Laski's crop of words culled from reading detective novels. Willinsky quotes Simpson as offering the excuse that with oral sources of language "there is no proper means of verification". If this is correctly reported, it must count as one of the silliest observations in the history of linguistics. Taking that view of verification would have made works such as Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary and the first European linguistic atlases impossible. And the silliness verges on absurdity when one stops to consider the way in which the OED editors on every page apparently treat as "verifiable" countless meanings of words used by writers long since dead and buried.

Semantics is not Willinsky's strong suit; nor has it ever been the OED's. But at least Willinsky worries about it - and rightly so. The whole notion that the meaning of a word can be simply "revealed" by a sufficiently copious list of decontextualised quotations is naive in the extreme. Sometimes Willinsky appears to hold that in theory the reader is supposed to look the quotation up in the original text in order to see how it illustrates the sense given: elsewhere he seems to think the editors imply that the phrases or sentences cited are themselves sufficient. But that does not go to the root of the problem. Murray had never thought through the implications for lexicography of the differences between definition, description and exemplification, although his own dictionary distinguishes between them. Much less had he pondered the lexicographical consequences of Mill's distinction between denotation and connotation, although again his dictionary records it. All this is doubly confused by Murray's own views of semantic change as a historical process. The result was that the itemisation and classification of meanings in the OED was a muddle, and his successors never had the courage to try to unscramble it.

Willinsky's most interesting chapter deals with what the OED has left out. He accuses the editors of systematically under-representing (i) the role of the clerks of the Chancery courts in contributing to the early standardisation of English, (ii) the working-class press of the first half of the 19th century, and (iii) the contribution of women writers to the development of English. The third is "the dictionary's largest sin of omission". As one might expect, the basis of the complaints is the poor showing of these three sources in the statistics for quotations. But in the third case he goes further, drawing attention to the misogynistic bias of the quotations given. Something odd is going on here because a couple of chapters previously Willinsky has more or less acquitted the dictionary on the charge of racial prejudice. The alleged anti-Semitism of the quotations pertinent to the latter charge is neither more nor less blatant than the anti-feminism of those Willinsky takes issue with. Yet in the case of racial prejudice, Willinsky adjudicates in favour of the OED and its tainted authors, on the curious ground that anti-Semitism was "simply part of the language and art of the times". Why the same cop-out will not do for an acquittal on the charge of disparaging women it is hard to see. One suspects the answer has more to do with trends in political correctness in America than with lexicography.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.

Empire of Words:: The Reign of the OED

Author - John Willinsky
ISBN - 0 691 03719 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 258pp

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