It all started in the early 1970s when Alan Bullock, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, was relaxing in Portugal with a copy of The Times Literary Supplement . "I came across the word hermeneutics," he recalls, "and was irritated to discover I was uncertain what it meant." Before the holiday was over he had listed hundreds more words which posed the same typically 20th-century problem: although they were in general circulation, their meanings involved rare or esoteric knowledge. So he conceived a new kind of reference book, in which experts would give plain but authoritative explanations of learned words that had escaped the seminar and established themselves on the linguistic commons. In the next few years he found publishers, assistants and (mainly Oxonian) collaborators, and in 1977 he and Oliver Stallybrass published their celebrated Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought .
Turning the grimy pages of the first edition today, it is easy to understand the dictionary's success. As well as giving nice expositions of some great conundrums of its time (cybernetics, structuralism, generative grammar, peer group, double helix and crisis management), it flattered its readers by treating them with high scientific seriousness. Our intellectual world, Bullock claimed, is dividing itself into smaller and smaller "areas", each studied in ever tinier detail by increasingly focused teams of experts. We were all bound to be baffled as soon as we ventured "outside our own territory". We were entering an "age of specialisation" and should not be ashamed of asking for help: students, teachers and even Nobel laureates were doing it.
The dictionary paid special attention to the naming of "fields of study": not just embryology, endocrinology and quantum mechanics, but penology, microclimatology and christology, together with psephology, perception geography and emporiatrics. ("The new science of emporiatrics" - in case you are too shy to ask - is the study of health and travel and "could aid the development of policies which would prevent avoidable suffering in travellers and help trade and tourism.") Even the arts lined up under nice conceptual categories: brutalism, chosism, constructivism, intimism, purism, magic realism, orphism, rayonism, and of course conceptual art itself, with its bold use of "everyday media such as neon lights".
The dictionary encouraged its readers to fantasise about a future in which the whole of human life would be administered by a kind of Utopia Polytechnic University, all of us proud and cheery in our preordained departmental niches and striving diligently for our research professorships. ("Hi, I'm Poppy from genetic epistemology, and this is my partner Luke - he's in serology; we're not sure about baby Tara, but it will either be ABC art or metahistory, and Darth here is going into petrography, aren't you dear?")
But even in 1977, some people had difficulty taking the vocabulary of "modern thought" quite seriously. Raymond Williams's Keywords was published the same year, and its historical inquiries into the "radically variable" meanings of the words that shape our social and cultural imagination was a quizzical reproach to the dream of a limpid terminological future overseen by earnest but contented professionals.
Indeed, the editors of the dictionary worried that they might have allowed certain headwords that were merely "trivial, or likely to prove short-lived", and they admitted to including several "which might well be regarded as symptoms of anti- or counter-thought". But such terms, they reflected, were "for better or for worse, part of the intellectual climate of our age", so between anthroposophy and anxiety they placed not only anti-ballistic, anti-particles and anti-trust but a dozen strangely nihilistic neighbours such as anti-art, anti-psychiatry and anti-theatre.
Words beginning with "anti-" went out of style after the 1970s, but when the dictionary went into a second edition in 1988, it countenanced further negative possibilities by granting admission to: being, nothingness, bad faith and angst. Many of these entries were poor - they could be improved by judicious applications of "it is not the case that ..." - but at least they recognised a tradition in which knowledge could be conceived not as the inevitable ingestion of facts by nerdy experts but as the chancy human adventure of subjecting the world to "nihilation".
What was "anti" in the 1970s became "post" a decade later. In 1977, seekers after postmodernism had to "see under modernism" (where they would find it defined as "choric global-village art"), but in 1988 it had a place of its own, as did postmodern classicism and postmodern dance.
The third edition, called The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought , now adds a dozen further headwords between post-capitalist and post-traumatic stress disorder. During the 1990s, as the editors observe with evident satisfaction, several social movements "matured into full-blown disciplines", and identity politics became "a cornerstone of the new western academic tradition". Fresh entries on post-colonialism and post-Fordism, post-humanism, post-modern feminism, post-Marxism and post-structuralism confirm their analysis, for they are not only smug and remarkably uniform, but also touchingly old-fashioned in their presumption that post knows best and old means worse. For all their cute allusions to bodies and desire, these articles are implicit tributes to the vision of progressive professionalisation that inspired Bullock's first edition all those years ago.
Old hopefuls such as Holy Rollers and histochemistry have been dropped from the 1999 edition, though emporiatrics and psephology are still going strong. Random access memory has departed too, because it no longer requires specialist explanation. Computers, indeed, have had more influence on the production of The New Fontana Dictionary than on its content. Cards and filing cabinets have been virtualised, and editors can paste an entry in a cybersecond; indeed, they have nonchalantly pasted their new paragraphs on assimilation in the wrong place. Meanwhile, that nasty idea of "nihilation" remains about as welcome in a celebration of modern thought as Big Issue sellers at a degree ceremony; but the spellcheck has deftly saved the day by changing it to postmodern-compliant "inhalation".
Jonathan Ree teaches philospophy at Middlesex University.
The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought
Editor - Alan Bullock and Stephen Trombley
ISBN - 0 00 255871 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £29.99
Pages - 933