Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Order Out of Chaos


Dictionary pigeonholes. Alphabetised quotation slips for the Oxford English Dictionary: photo by Owen Massey McKnight, 11 February 2000

To help him in arranging the words and the quotation slips -- the crucially important pieces of paper that would be the project's building blocks -- [Herbert] Coleridge had a carpenter build for him, in oak, a small suite of pigeon-holes, to hold and permit the alphabetical arrangement of the various quotation slips that his volunteers sent in. The arrangement which he designed was six square holes high, nine across -- giving him a total of 54 pigeon-holes, with some 260 inches of linear space that were thought sufficient to hold comfortably between 60,000 and 100,000 of the slips. No greater number could Coleridge ever imagine his having to deal with. When they were all filled with quotation slips, he was heard to tell his fellow philologists, then and only then would it be time to start proper editorial work on the big dictionary.

'There are two beginnings in every year,' says an old Irish proverb. The Oxford English Dictionary had the first of its beginnings in 1851. And now, with James Murray's formal appointment in 1879, it was having its second almost twenty years later. But it was not quite so simple, getting matters under way again after so long a period of quietude.

First, there was the small matter of what everyone called quite simply 'the slips'. These were the quotation slips, the morsels of paper on which the brief -- but to a dictionary editor absolutely essential -- pieces of information that had been gleaned from all those years of volunteer reading of the core books of English literature, of the newspapers and learned journals and railway timetables and technical manuals and navigational almanacs and collections of belles lettres besides. Within the sentences that had been written on these slips, and which were waiting to be sifted and sorted and discovered by dictionary editors, lay all the subtle and not-so-subtle shades of meaning and sense of the various words that the quotations illustrated.

There were said to be something like two million of these slips already collected, tied together in rough order, no doubt covered in dust and lint, curled and yellow, and perhaps even crumbling themselves with age and decrepitude. It was already twenty years since Herbert Coleridge had begun to amass them at his house on Chester Terrace, and fifteen or so since Frederick Furnivall had entreated his scores of readers to 'copy and burrow' in the literature, to write out the slips, and to send them in to him to St George's Square. Some were therefore very old indeed, and by now a good number of those gentle readers who had collected them had perhaps not survived to see them put to use.
Many of those worthies whom Furnivall had appointed as sub-editors for individual letters had taken away their bundles of slips for sorting, and when Furnivall's attention settled on one of his other enthusiasms -- Amazonian scullers from Hammersmith teashops, for example, or practising with early English balladeers, or setting up Working Men's Clubs -- many had stopped working on them, had squirreled them away somewhere, and everyone involved had forgotten about them.

Most of the slips were simply half-sheets of white writing paper, each of them (if properly filled in by the volunteers who submitted them, though not all complied) with the headword -- or the catchword, or the lemma, as it is now commonly known -- at the top left, the date and author and precise source of the quotation that contained it written below, and then the quotation itself, either in full or in what the rules were pleased to call 'an adequate form'. Two million of such slips, weighing the better part of two tons, were in existence.

But where on earth were they? To begin work properly on his dictionary, Murray needed to find them, and given that the contract clock was running, he had to find them fast. Frederick Furnivall, it will be recalled, had entirely lost the will and concentration that was necessary to run the project, and quite frankly had lost track of all the scores of volunteers, the hundreds of thousands of slips, the pages of schedules and proofs and specimen pages and type designs and other details of dictionary assembly, such that the entire enterprise under his care had been reduced to a sorry shambles of decay and desuetude.

Simon Winchester: from The Meaning of Everything: The Story of 
the Oxford English Dictionary, 2003

Specimen quotation slips, from June 1879 Philological Society Appeal by editor James A.H. Murray for the assistance of readers in compiling the New English Dictionary (via Oxford University Press)

Such was the position of English lexicography in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the late Dr. Trench, then Dean of Westminster, who had already written several esteemed works on the English language and the history of words, read two papers before the Philological Society in London 'On some Deficiencies in existing English Dictionaries,' in which, while speaking with much appreciation of the labours of Dr. Johnson and his successors, he declared that these labours yet fell far short of giving us the ideal English Dictionary. Especially, he pointed out that for the history of words and families of words, and for the changes of form and sense which words had historically passed through, they gave hardly any help whatever. No one could find out from all the dictionaries extant how long any particular word had been in the language, which of the many senses in which many words were used was the original, or how or when these many senses had been developed; nor, in the case of words described as obsolete, were we told when they became obsolete or by whom they were last used. He pointed out also that the obsolete and the rarer words of the language had never been completely collected; that thousands of words current in the literature of the past three centuries had escaped the diligence of Johnson and all his supplemented; that, indeed, the collection of the requisite material for a complete dictionary could not be compassed by any one man, however long-lived and however diligent, but must be the work of many collaborators who would undertake systematically to read and to extract English literature. He called upon the Philological Society, therefore, as the only body in England then interesting itself in the language, to undertake the collection of materials to complete the work already done by Bailey, Johnson, Todd, Webster, Richardson, and others, and to prepare a supplement to all the dictionaries, which should register all omitted words and senses, and supply all the historical information in which these works were lacking, and, above all, should give quotations illustrating the first and last appearance, and every notable point in the life-history of every word.

From this impulse arose the movement which, widened and directed by much practical experience, has culminated in the preparation of the Oxford English Dictionary, 'A new English Dictionary on Historical Principles, founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological Society.' This dictionary super-adds to all the features that have been successively evolved by the long chain of workers, the historical information which Dr. Trench desiderated. It seeks not merely to record every word that has been used in the language for the last 800 years, with its written form and signification, and the pronunciation of the current words, but to furnish a biography of each word, giving as nearly as possible the date of its birth or first known appearance, and, in the case of an obsolete word or sense, of its last appearance, the source from which it was actually derived, the form and sense with which it entered the language or is first found in it, and the successive changes of form and developments of sense which it has since undergone. All these particulars are derived from historical research; they are an induction of facts gathered by the widest investigation of the written monuments of the language. For the purposes of this historical illustration more than five millions of extracts have been made, by two thousand volunteer Readers, from innumerable books, representing the English literature of all ages, and from numerous documentary records. From these, and the further researches for which they provide a starting-point, the history of each word is deduced and exhibited.

James Augustus Henry Murray (1837–1915): from The Evolution of English Lexicography, a lecture delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 22 June 1900

Handwritten slips submitted by readers for the Oxford English Dictionary. These slips show illustrative quotations for 'cash' and 'emperorship', among other words: photo by Owen Massey McKnight, 11 February 2009

Emperorship: examples of usage, via Oxford Dictionaries:
  • The only check on that power is the spasmodic eruption of pseudo-scandal, a brief orgy of blood-letting as used to occur between emperorships in ancient Rome.
  • Helping him is Wu Yip, who has designs on the emperorship of China.
  • In this way, the astronomical clock and the water mill became two different embodiments of the same emperorship in science.


James Murray (1837-1915), editor and philologist: photographer unknown, before 1910 (Oxford English Dictionary)

In March 1879, after a series of prolonged discussions, the Philological Society came to an agreement with the Oxford University Press concerning the editing and publication of what was now to be known as The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). After consulting several scholars, among them Frederick Furnivall, Henry Sweet, and the comparative philologist Max Müller, the delegates of the press offered the task of editing the dictionary to James Murray. He was invited to edit the material for publication in parts. It was proposed that he would be able to compile the successive fascicles with help from a small editorial staff while he was still teaching at Mill Hill School. Murray, estimating that the dictionary could be finished in ten years in an estimated 7000 pages, accepted. In fact the first fascicle, consisting of words in the range A–Ant, was not published until 1884, and the last one in 1928, forty-four years later. (Volume publication, collating the fascicles, also took place over this span of time.) In its final form the dictionary consisted of more than 16,000 pages.

Murray arranged for a workroom to be built in the small front garden of his house in which to store all the accumulated piles of illustrative quotations that had arrived over the years; it was also to serve as a suitable place for editing the dictionary itself. He jokingly called this building his scriptorium. Elisabeth Murray describes the initial chaos in graphic terms:

Many of the sub-editors had clearly found difficulty in packing up hundredweights of [dictionary] slips. Some were sent in sacks in which they had long been stored, and when opened a dead rat was found in one and a live mouse and her family in another … Many of the bundles had stood for so many years in unsuitable places that the slips were crumbling with damp and the writing had faded.

Throughout the preparation of the dictionary he had to endure what his biographer called ‘The Triple Nightmare: Space, Time, and Money’. The project was plagued by a lack of adequate office space in which to accommodate the editorial staff and their essential books, as well as the pigeon-holes for the quotation slips. There was also mounting pressure from the delegates of the University Press, who feared that the return on their investment was increasingly at risk because the dictionary was taking much longer to prepare than had seemed likely when the contract was signed in 1879. Murray felt persecuted by what he saw as harassment to accelerate the rate of completion of the fascicles.

Murray gave occasional lectures on the project, the best-known of which was the Romanes lecture, ‘The evolution of English lexicography’, which he delivered on 22 June 1900 in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. It gave an outline account of the emergence of interlinear glosses (some Latin/Latin, others Latin/English) in England in the pre-Conquest period, and the later transformation of individual glosses into classified and alphabetized lists of ‘hard words’, then into dictionaries of ‘hard words’, and finally into dictionaries of ‘the whole’ language, including ordinary words such as the definite and indefinite articles, adverbs, prepositions, phrasal verbs, and so on -- arguably the most difficult entries to compile in any modern dictionary. The scale of the OED was astonishing by comparison with that of any English dictionary published before the end of the nineteenth century. Murray had revolutionized the whole process by which the English language was mapped.

R. W. Burchfield (1923-2004): from ‘Murray, Sir James Augustus Henry (1837–1915)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Box of quotation slips submitted by readers for the Oxford English Dictionary: photo by Owen Massey McKnight, 11 February 2009

For no product whatsoever of reason... can last forever.

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso XXVI

Kennicott Collapsed Hospital. Every flood season, the river overflows and fills it with rocks. No really, the whole hospital is full of rocks: photo by Phil Ackley (Mr Lunatic Fringe), 29 September 2012

What is uttered at any time differs from language, as the body of its products; and before leaving the present section, we must take time to examine this difference more closely. A language, in its whole compass, contains everything that it has transformed into sounds. But just as the matter of thinking, and the infinity of its combinations, can never be exhausted, so it is equally impossible to do this with the mass of what calls for designation and connection in language. In addition to its already formed elements, language also consists, before all else, of methods for carrying forward the work of the mind, to which it prescribes the path and the form. The elements, once firmly fashioned, constitute, indeed, a relatively dead mass, but one which bears within itself the living seed of a never-ending determinability. At every single point and period, therefore, language, like nature itself, appears to man -- in contrast to all else that he has already known and thought of -- as an inexhaustible storehouse, in which the mind can always discover something new to it, and feeling perceive what it has not yet felt in this way. In every treatment of language by a genuinely new and great talent, this phenomenon is evinced in reality; and in order to encourage him in the constant labour of his intellectual struggle, and progressive unfolding of his mental life, man does in fact require that, beyond the field of past achievements, a vista should remain open to him into an infinite mass that still waits to be gradually unravelled. But language contains at the same time, in two directions, a dark unrevealed depth. For rearwards, even, it flows out from an unknown wealth that is still to a certain extent discernible, but then closes off, leaving only a sense of its unfathomability. For us, who receive light from a brief past only, language shares this infinitude, without beginning or end, with the whole existence of mankind. But in it we gain a clearer and more vivid sense of how even the distant past is still linked with the feeling of today; for language has traversed through the experience of earlier generations and preserved a breath of this; and these generations have a national and family kinship to us in these same sounds of the mother-tongue, which serve to express our own feelings as well.

This partly fixed and partly fluid content of language engenders a special relationship between it and the speaking generation. There is generated within it a stock of words and a system of rules whereby it grows, in the course of millennia, into an independent force. As we noted above, the thought once embodied in language becomes an object for the soul, and to that extent exerts thereon an effect that is alien to it. But we have primarily considered the object as having arisen from the subject, the effect as having proceeded from that upon which it reacts. We now encounter the opposite view, whereby language is truly an alien object, and its effect has in fact proceeded from something other than what it works on. For language must necessarily be a joint possession, and is in truth the property of the whole human species. Now since, in writing, it also keeps slumbering thoughts ready for arousal to the mind, it comes to enjoy a peculiar existence, which in every case, admittedly, can only hold good in the current act of thinking, but in its totality is independent of this. The two opposing views here stated, that language belongs to or is foreign to the soul, depends or does not depend upon it, are in actuality combined there and constitute the peculiarity of its nature. Nor must this conflict be resolved by making language in part something alien and independent, and in part neither one nor the other. Language is objectively active and independent, precisely in so far as it is subjectively passive and dependent. For nowhere, not even in writing, does it have a permanent abode; its ‘dead’ part must always be regenerated in thinking, come to life in speech and understanding, and hence must pass over entirely into the subject. But this act of regeneration consists, precisely, in likewise making an object of it; it thereby undergoes on each occasion the full impact of the individual, but this impact is already in itself governed by what language is doing and has done. The true solution of this opposition lies in the unity of human nature. In what stems from that, in what is truly one with myself, the concepts of subject and object, of dependence and independence, are each merged into the other. Language belongs to me, because I bring it forth as I do; and since the ground of this lies at once in the speaking and having-spoken of every generation of men, so far as speech-communication may have prevailed unbroken among them, it is language itself which restrains me when I speak. But that in it which limits and determines me has arrived there from a human nature intimately allied to my own, and its alien element is therefore alien only for my transitory individual nature, not for my original and true one.

When we think how the current generation of a people is governed by all that their language has undergone, through all the preceding centuries, and how only the power of the single generation impinges thereon -- and this not even purely, since those coming up and those departing live mingled side by side -- it then becomes evident how small, in fact, is the power of the individual compared to the might of language. Only through the latter’s uncommon plasticity, the possibility of assimilating its forms in very different ways without damage to general understanding, and through the dominion exercised by every living mind over its dead heritage, is the balance somewhat restored. Yet it is always language in which every individual feels most vividly that he is nothing but an outflow of the whole of mankind. For while each reacts individually and incessantly upon it, every generation nevertheless produces a change in it, which only too often escapes notice. For the change does not always reside in the words and forms themselves, but at times only in their differently modified usage; and where writing and literature are lacking, the latter is harder to perceive. The reaction of the individual upon language becomes more apparent if we consider, as we must not omit to do if our concepts are to be sharply defined, that the individuality of a language (as the term is commonly understood) is only comparatively such, whereas true individuality resides only in the speaker at any given time. Only in the individual does language receive its ultimate determinacy. Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbour does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language. Thus all understanding is always at the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence. The manner in which language is modified in every individual discloses, in contrast to its previously expounded power, a dominion of man over it. Its power may be regarded (if we wish to apply the term to mental forces) as a physiological efficacy; the dominion emanating from man is a purely dynamical one. In the influence exerted on him lies the regularity of language and its forms; in his own reaction, a principle of freedom. For a thing may spring up in man, for which no understanding can discover the reason in previous circumstances; and we should misconceive the nature of language, and violate, indeed, the historical truth of its emergence and change, if we sought to exclude from it the possibility of such inexplicable phenomena. But though freedom in itself may be indeterminable and inexplicable, its bounds can perhaps be discovered, within a certain sphere reserved to it alone; and linguistic research must recognize and respect the phenomenon of freedom, but also be equally careful in tracing its limits.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835): from On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, 1836; English translation by Peter Heath, 1999

Jönköping. Östra centrum och Kålgården: photo by Johan Larsson (sonicinfusion), 12 March 2014

As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. And not all words for just anyone submit equally easily to this appropriation, to this seizure and transformation into private property: many words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them; they cannot be assimilated into his context and fall out of it, it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks within the will of the speaker. Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated -- overpopulated -- with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes "one’s own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), from Discourse in the Novel, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, 1975; English translation by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist

De mortuis (Dollville, Illinois): photo by efo, 29 September 2013

The Construction of the Tower of Babel (The "little" Tower of Babel): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563; image by Quistnix! 2009 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

The Tower of Babel: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)


ACravan said...

I would like to think this will be widely read and remembered, taught in school, even. The fact that it is so much longer (although still quite short in the bigger scheme of things) than your average Facebook post,a million times longer than a tweet, and not a game or an app works against that, unfortunately. People seem to spell "f-u-n" differently these days. Curtis

TC said...

Thanks Curtis, and of course you've got all that right. The standard zero-to-five seconds attention span has been shrinking down to two, one... Devolution, no other explanation.

In any case I've lately decided to encourage the pinheads to reserve their attention to the heads of their own pins, as I go on, while yet approximately able, following down the historical leads that interest old, slow me. This is one. The evidences of noble aim running hand in hand with practical futility, demonstrated in the early stages of the making of this grand Book of Words, along with a sense of the ultimate impossibility of such a project, strikes me as a particularly touching parable of human aspiration running up against the facts of life. All one would need to appreciate the speed at which the logos outdistances the lexicon, anymore, is a quick study of the online Urban Dictionary. To "read" it is to sigh, and groan, and learn, and grow... extremely depressed.

But there it is. James Murray might be kicking at the sides of the box; but at least the sides may well be padded with some of those millions of word-slips, most of them sent in, in response to Murray's general appeal, by ordinary folk, who were interested enough in their language to pore through page after page of its literature both "high" and "low" (perhaps stinting a bit on the "low", but then these were generally civilized folk), tracking and noting usages. All that labour donated anonymously, for no conceivable reward.

Murray's most prolific contributor, over several decades, was a mysterious figure who declined to reveal anything about himself. Over time, naturally, Murray's curiosity grew. Finally he tracked the fellow down. A brilliant ex-surgeon, incarcerated for a particularly brutal crime (for which he had exacted upon himself his own retribution, in the form of self-mutilation).

A remarkably intelligent, diligent and industrious chap, the mystery man was, and he contributed more entries than anyone to the compilation, and thus remains a more significant contributor to the history of the language than, say, all of the ten trillion texters and tweeters of Amurka the Byootiful, all stacked together on the head of that pin.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Praise all those unsung mysterious lexical heroes, for without them we would be zilch.

TC said...

Yes, and nor would we have a working definition of it.

It was the story of how all those anonymous volunteers rolled up their sleeves and, without the aid of computers (those lazy contemporary substitutes for a brain), toted up all those quotations, purely out of respect for the language they used, that prompted a pause for reflection, a tear or two, and, at length, this post.

That someone (in fact, eventually, very many different someones) should do this kind of selfless work for no private motive and without regard for the unlikelihood of any sort of professional advancement, much less the dwarf grandeur accrued in a "poetry career", seemed quite moving to me.

The amassing of the trove of quotation slips had been begun by Murray's predecessor Herbert Coleridge, some years before the whole bewildering bundle landed in Murray's lap -- or his Scriptorium, one ought to say.

"Herbert Coleridge was appointed editor, and as a first step he established an ambitious reading programme in which quotational evidence was to be systematically gathered. Several hundred readers were drawn into the scheme, including F. J. Furnivall, the novelist Charlotte Yonge, and the etymologist Professor W. W. Skeat. One of the odder incidents in the history of the dictionary was that a particularly prolific contributor of illustrative quotations, Dr W. C. Minor, was later discovered to have been confined in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane during the time of his contributions -- he had shot and killed a man some years before in an apparently motiveless attack. Minor provided an invaluable service to the dictionary with his painstaking lexicographical research.

"The importance of these readers to the larger project cannot be overemphasized. One reader (Thomas Austin) had produced 165,000 supporting quotations by the time that the first volume (A–B) was published in 1888. Furnivall had produced 30,000 in the same period, and Minor came up with between 5000 and 8000 quotations. Ultimately, the dictionary was very much a collaborative effort. Other assistants, including members of Murray's own family, helped with sorting and filing the material as it arrived. About fifty names, including those of Charlotte Yonge and W. W. Skeat, are listed in the preface to volume 1 as having sub-edited, or prepared for sub-editing, the quotational evidence submitted to the editor.

"However successful the reading of sources was to become, in the early years of the project it proved inadequate. What Dean Trench had grandly described in 1857 as ‘this drawing as with a sweep-net over the whole extent of English literature’ had by 1860 garnered only about one-tenth of the quotations that were ultimately needed. In 1861 Herbert Coleridge died. Furnivall was persuaded to take on the editorship, but his methods of work were erratic and in the end unsuccessful. As a first step he proposed the compilation of a concise dictionary, and forecast that such a book could be produced in three years. Both ideas came to nothing. Negotiations with Macmillan as possible publisher of the society's dictionary also proved to be unfruitful, and the dictionary's future was uncertain."

At which point, enter James Murray.