Unlocking the English Language (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Samuel Johnson, author of the landmark A Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, once said that “dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” These twelve essays by Robert Burchfield, a noted linguist and lexicographer and the author of The English Language (1985), prove that Johnson’s comments are even more valid in the age of digital clocks than they were in Johnson’s age of the pocket watch. While the science of lexicography—dictionary writing—has come a long way since the eighteenth century, Burchfield shows how even the best English dictionaries of the twentieth century face major cultural and linguistic obstacles.
Burchfield should know. From 1957 until 1986 he was associated with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), generally regarded as the most comprehensive and careful historical record of the English language. These twenty-nine years of experience have given Burchfield an intimate knowledge of the dictionary’s virtues and weaknesses and, while singing the OED’s praises in Unlocking the English Language, he also recognizes the limits of lexicography and knows what dictionaries can and cannot do.
Limitations of space constantly force lexicographers to make decisions about what words to include and what words to leave out. Even a dictionary of the magnitude of the OED cannot be comprehensive. Generally excluded are such broad categories as technical and scientific words; place and personal names are included only if they experience semantic transformations. “Jersey” is cited because of the cow and “Casanova” because of the reputation, not because of the man who earned it.
Burchfield also traces the genealogy of dictionaries and shows how many definitions in modern dictionaries can be traced back, often word-for-word, to the earlier dictionaries of Johnson, Noah Webster, and the OED. Using a scholarly comparison to manuscript traditions and textual transmission, Burchfield shows how such borrowing among dictionaries, a practice that would today verge upon plagiarism, has resulted in an intricate network of interrelated dictionaries in the English-speaking world.
The history of the OED itself is part of the key to these essays. Begun in 1879 under the editorship of Sir James Murray, the original OED represented the first attempt to provide a historical analysis of the vocabulary of any language. Burchfield explains how the OED stands apart from other dictionaries. No mere resource for spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of words, the OED also documents the growth and development of individual words within the language. The OED offers a series of chronologically arranged quotes that cite specific uses of a particular word over time. The result is a permanent record of the language in which words are shown to have a life of their own.
Burchfield captures much of this life in his essays, which are filled with anecdotes and illustrations of the vigor of the English language. The suffix “-ette,” used in the nineteenth century to refer to something small, as in “sermonette” (1814) and “essayette” (1877), or to describe an artificial material—such as “leatherette” (1880) and “cashmerette” (1886)—gained new currency in the twentieth century with the appearance of the word “suffragette” (1906). With its new gender-based meaning, the suffix has produced words like “usherette” (1925) and “majorette” (1941) without losing its earlier diminutive uses in words like “dinette” (1930) and “diskette” (1973).
Published in twelve volumes between 1884 and 1928, the OED was in some ways out of date before it was finished. Even though Murray and his colleagues had worked with care, they could not keep up with the pace of linguistic transformation, and the OED had to be reissued with a supplement within five years of its completion.
Burchfield offers a linguist’s overview of the changing face of English in the twentieth century. New words reflect new technologies, social habits, and politics. “Dashboard” appeared in 1904 and “pacifist” in 1906. “Runway” (1923) led to “pep pill” (1937) and “soap opera” (1939). “Nylon stockings” (1941), “freebies” (1942), and “G.I. brides” (1945) were joined by “hippies” (1953), “sputnik” (1957), “baby-boom” (1967), and “yuppies” (1984). The history of a century is described by its vocabulary.
New words are added and others are lost. Burchfield laments in particular the disappearance of the vocabulary used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (1611), known more commonly in the United States as the King James Version. The poetic “makeths” and “untos” of the Authorized Version have yielded in twentieth century translations to more prosaic “makes” and “tos”; so Psalm 23:2,...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)
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