Discursive tales attempt to tell definitive story

The Dictionary Men
July 15, 2005

The writing of dictionaries has often been seen as a less than congenial task. Dismissed as "dull work" by Samuel Johnson in one of the definitions he provided for "dull" in his own dictionary of 1755 ("Not exhilarating; not delightful"), it was an "abyss" to James Murray, editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary between 1878 and 1915, and an anthropomorphised entity "which will never cry enough!". Murray's regular 14-hour working day further confirmed the demands that lexicography could impose: dictionary-making was not for the faint of heart.

R. W. Holder's survey of six dictionary-makers - from Johnson in the 18th century to Joseph Wright, editor of the English Dialect Dictionary in the early 20th, on the way taking in Noah Webster, Peter Roget, Murray and George Smith (the publisher behind the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography ) - offers a wide-ranging engagement with familiar and not-so-familiar figures. Johnson and Murray have been the subject of frequent biographical attention, Wright and Roget less so, and it is to Holder's credit that his chapter on Wright is perhaps the most successful in the volume.

As Holder's subtitle stresses, the emphasis throughout is less on the lexicographical advances made by the individuals discussed or on the linguistic or philological contexts in which their work was achieved, and more on the "life and times" of these writers. As a result, we learn much about, say, Johnson's varied acquaintances but rather less about contemporary linguistic disputes. In the chapter on Smith, we become familiar with those writers whose works he published. The coy subheading "How George Smith became a ladies' man" leads to a five-page excursus on Charlotte Bront , whose Jane Eyre (after six rejections by other publishing houses) was published by Smith in 1848. Moreover, we cover the history of Charlotte Bront 's parents, the death of her brother Branwell, her education (and that of her sisters), her early attempts at versification, the reception of Jane Eyre , Victorian sexual stereotyping and Queen Victoria's enjoyment of sex, before we arrive at the point when Smith and Bront meet face to face.

Like some of the other dictionary-makers discussed, Smith can end up as a bit player in his own narrative, with the real impetus coming from Holder's interest in the network of relationships of a large publishing house and the mass of social detail that is potentially relevant to a full understanding of the period. On occasion, this leads to a somewhat circuitous route. The chapter on Wright begins in the English woollen industry, moves on to discuss the introduction of the power loom, the changing fortunes of the 19th-century cotton industry and the history of Bradford, before introducing Wright's grandfather (a farmer and owner of a number of looms himself), and eventually turning to Wright himself.

Holder proves himself master of the artful digression, but whether this is more informative than irritating is open to debate. Particularly representative is the lengthy side-step in the chapter on Roget by which we are taken from Roget, as a young medical student, meeting Thomas Beddoes in Bristol, to the experiments and patients of the latter, to Josiah Wedgwood (a patient of Beddoes), to Wedgwood's partner Humphry Davy, to Davy's inventions (the electric battery, the safety lamp for miners), before leaping ten years forward and encountering Michael Faraday (who seems to have no connection with Roget, though he was the aforementioned Davy's pupil), and on to James Watt, who thereby brings us full circle by designing the mechanical apparatus for Beddoes's Institute at Clifton.

Holder's fascination is with the crisscrossings of history, and this book reveals an often encyclopaedic knowledge that can be a weakness as well as a strength. A section headed "Why we all know about Dr Johnson" engages with the subject of rivers and cross-country navigation, crop rotation, the agrarian revolution, the ploughing-in of lupins in East Anglia and the payment of debts - and all on a single page. The chains of connection can seem infinite, though Holder's handling of the complex details of the publication of the New English Dictionary and the varied disputes between Murray and the delegates of Oxford University Press is well written and carefully controlled. Sections on economic background are frequently strong, testifying perhaps to Holder's undoubted expertise in his erstwhile role as treasurer of Bath University - he has a sure grasp of the financial debits that dictionary-making could effect. Smith's personal subsidy of £60,000 to offset the losses of the first edition of the DNB is presented as an act of lexicographical altruism deserving considerable respect.

Although the odd error is obvious ("Fitzhoward Hall" rather than Fitzedward Hall, for example, in the text and the index), the handling of material is usually sound. Nevertheless, a closer engagement with the lexicographical achievements of the individuals discussed would have been welcome, as would some sense of their inner life and the professional conflicts they faced.

Murray's personal letters, for instance, often detail his anguish in the early days of the dictionary project. Holder's discussion of Johnson's entries for "oats" and "Tory" goes over well-worn territory, as does the coverage of Victorian prudery and the NED . Holder's previous work on euphemisms might here have led him to look at their artful use within the NED , as well as at other areas of lexical omission and social concern.

The descriptive and anecdotal, rather than the analytical, remains the dominant mode here, testifying to Holder's personal enthusiasms, viewpoints and interests, if not to the kind of academic rigour that would have led to the provision of footnotes or a bibliography, both of which are absent.

Loose ends of various kinds can abound, and a degree of pruning - just as the delegates of OUP urged on the recalcitrant Murray - would at times have been beneficial. As in Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale , we are sometimes required to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Lynda Mugglestone is a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.

The Dictionary Men: Their Lives and Times

Author - R. W. Holder
Publisher - Bath University Press
Pages - 294
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 86197 129 9

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments