Dictionaries list where words come from – but they are also where languages go to die, says John Sutherland. He previews the sale of the Thomas Malin Rogers Collection, the largest privately owned trove of dictionaries in the world

'Word-hoards' the Anglo-Saxons called them. Mine is very different from yours – as distinctly 'mine' as my handwriting. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, had a very large word-hoard – some 30,000, it's reckoned. Mine, like yours probably, is around 8,000. Put all our word-hoards together and you have what? A dictionary.

Putting them together is, however, the kind of job best avoided by anyone wanting a life. England's greatest dictionary-maker, Samuel Johnson, having spent the greater part of his professional career and eyesight assembling his Dictionary of the English Language, defined his life's work ruefully in its pages: "Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

Dictionaries began, historically and socially, in the dawn of civilisation as tools of an infinite variety of trades – all of which had their specialized terminologies. The earliest example in Bonhams sale of The Dictionary Collection of Thomas Malin Rodgers, which takes place in New York this December, is a 'cuneiform lexical tablet' (if you don't have your dictionary handy, 'cuneiform' means inscribed, with a sharp instrument, on clay). The fragment dates from around 1600BC, and has been identified as "a lexical text giving a list of fish". Invaluable, doubtless, for fishmongers. There were probably similar 'tables' for Babylonian butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

A whole variety of other institutions and trades have drawn up dictionaries, or glossaries, as essential utilities for going about their everyday business. The British and Foreign Bible Society and other missionary projects compose dictionaries for the propagation
of religion in foreign lands.

Every fortnight, it is reckoned, a world language dies. Choctaw, one of the dictionaries in the sale, is in reasonably good shape, with about 10,000 Native-American speakers – but fewer every year. A definitive dictionary is, sadly, a language's best tombstone.
Living languages need dictionaries as well. Just as the modern discipline of mathematics began with Phoenician traders who wanted to keep accurate business and inventory records, so the 'inter-lingual dictionary' was necessary for any country wanting commercial or political relations with the world outside. In the collection, one's eye is caught by a Chinese Spanish dictionary, dating from the early 17th century, when the demand for silk in imperial Spain was ravenous, along with the noble desire to spread the word of God among the heathen.

Law has always been an area where precise definition and application of words is vital. Hence the fussy use in English and American law of 'doublets', as in 'no let or hindrance', 'last will and testament', 'null and void'. It is not surprising to find in the collection early dictionaries listing and defining such things as 'legal precedents'. Many of the early dictionaries handsomely represented in the collection use Latin.

Under the Roman Empire, Latin ruled. It was important, whatever your everyday language, to know the language of the master. And the master's language lingered, long after the Roman masters had gone, in universities, law courts and the rituals of monarchy (which is why 'Vivat Regina!' was declaimed at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II). The Roman Catholic Church did not forgo Latin liturgy until the 1960s.

The explosion in the making of European 'vernacular' dictionaries coincided with the rise of nationalism – the moment, historically, when countries became proud of their own tongues. The poet laureate, John Dryden, complained in 1693 that: "We [the English People] have yet no prosodia, not so much as a tolerable dictionary, or a grammar, so that our language is in a manner barbarous." Dryden's use of the term 'barbarous' indicates his yearning for neoclassical 'order'.

The necessary ordering of the English tongue came with Johnson. But the 'Great Cham', as his contemporaries called him (if you don't have your dictionary to hand 'Cham' means 'king' via 'khan'), was not first in the field. That honor is traditionally awarded to Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall of Hard Usual English Words, 1604 (for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or other unskillful persons).

Johnson offered much more. He invented modern lexicography. What he published in 1755 was the English-speaking world's first anthropological dictionary. Johnson respected the 'livingness' of language or, as he put it, "Language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived" – by which he meant that words are infinitely slippery. They mean different things in different places and at different times. It may surprise dippers-in to discover that the first definition of 'network' (that invaluable term in the internet age) is to be found in Johnson's pages. But it's not the kind of networking one associates with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook: Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

Johnson was insatiably curious about where and how words originated. Most of us know what Shakespeare meant when he called his play The Taming of the Shrew. But what is the origin of that word 'shrew'? Johnson explains it with his characteristic ponderosity:
"Shrewmouse: A mouse of which the bite is generally supposed venomous, and to which vulgar tradition assigns such malignity, that she is said to lame the foot over which she runs. I am informed that these reports are calumnious, and that her feet and teeth are equally harmless with those of any other little mouse. Our ancestors however looked on her with such terrour, that they are supposed to have given her name to a scolding woman, whom for her venom they call a shrew." Now you know.

Johnson's dictionary was the inspiration, a century later, for the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to the millions of entries the OED contains, it adds some 8,000 new words a year to its online edition. English is hardly a dying language. 'Exploding' would be more appropriate.

The OED – like Johnson's Dictionary – is quintessentially 'English' in character. It is 'descriptive' and respects 'usage'. The French do things differently. Their attitude is prescriptive, something formalized by the establishment of the Académie française in 1635.

Making 'authorized' dictionaries of the French language became one of the academy's principal activities. Should a dictionary describe how we use words, or instruct us how to use them? It depends which side of the channel you're on.

A language has been called a dialect with an army behind it. And, one might add, a dictionary in its hand. When countries become world powers, dictionaries tend to take on a chauvinist character.

America even has a Dictionary Day, in commemoration of that country's great lexicographer, Noah Webster, born on 16 October 1758. Webster's proudly titled An American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828 – 50 years after the liberating Revolution. In a spirit of fiery independence Webster aimed to sweep away all Johnson's antique 'rubbish' and create a dynamic 'American' tongue. He simplified spellings ('color' not 'color', 'music' not 'musick') and reduced coverage to the 70,000 words which were judged truly useful to an emergent world power. Nonetheless, Webster retained some old-fangled prejudices, as, for example: "Preposterous: perverted; wrong; absurd; contrary to nature or reason; not adapted to the end".
He then goes on to offer, by way of example "as, a republican government in the hands of females, is preposterous". Take that, Hillary.

John Sutherland is Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College, London.

Sale: The Dictionary Collection
of Thomas Malin Rodgers
New York
Tuesday 4 December at 1pm
Enquiries: Christina Geiger +1 212 644 9094

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