how dictionaries are compiled and written
This book is an accessible introduction to lexicography – the study of dictionaries and how they are compiled. Howard Jackson provides a detailed overview of the history, types and content of everybody’s essential reference book. He starts with a very readable introduction to the grammar, structure, and history of the English language, then traces the development of dictionaries. This goes from their origins as lists of ‘hard’ (that is, foreign) words in the early Renaissance, via Dr Johnson’s famous attempt to ‘fix the meaning of words’ which when it appeared in 1754 carried a preface admitting that such an attempt was pointless.
Next comes the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, begun by John Murray in 1884, which took forty-four years to complete. He gives a detailed account of the editors’ attempts to be as systematic as possible, constructing their evidence from the work of volunteers. He covers the American tradition of democratic lexicography pioneered by Noah Webster in what emerged at the US popular option, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. There’s a careful explanation of the differences between shorter and concise dictionaries, and an account of what’s possible in the increasingly popular electronic dictionaries. These now commonly offer search facilities, sample pronunciations, and hypertext links between entries.
He discusses issues of range – what to include or exclude – how entries in a dictionaries are to be displayed, and how much detail is to be provided under each entry. This becomes most interesting when he tackles problems of including new terms, slang expressions, obsolete and taboo terms, and how much etymological history to provide.
The other highpoint is a consideration of the different ways in which words can be defined, when they have multiple meanings (horse, table, back) and often take their meaning from the context in which they are used.
Who will be interested in all this? Students and teachers of language, lexicographers of course, and anyone with an interest in the most popular source of reference in most cultures – the book (or CD-ROM) to which we turn when we need information on the spelling or meaning of a word.
© Roy Johnson 2002
Howard Jackson, Lexicography: An Introduction, London: Routledge, 2002, pp.190, ISBN: 0415231736