Dictionaries A Very Short Introduction by Lynda Mugglestone (2011)

Dictionaries.tif“In other words, rather than looking at words in isolation, as in the processes of the past, the aim is, in essence, that of ‘judging a word by the company it keeps’ (a maxim based on the work of the linguist J. R. Firth).” 64

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The book discusses various approaches to authoring dictionaries across history, and some of the various philosophical approaches and problems in writing dictionaries.

The primary divide between dictionary authors throughout history has been the tension between a prescriptive bent (how words should be used) and a descriptive one (how words are used).  Mugglestone explores this tension and how it’s impacted dictionary writing throughout history.  She also explores how the task has changed, from largely solo projects by incredibly dedicated and ambitious individuals, to crowd-sourced sharing of paper clippings mailed to a central office, to digital searches of enormous corpuses that allow for the most systematic, evidence-based dictionary construction thus far.  The book was mildly interesting, with the best parts containing descriptions of how amateur readers contributed to early dictionaries.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Recommend to Others: No, unless you are very interested in words and word meaning

Reread Personally:  No


“Index cards were spread out over the floor of the office, sometimes for days.  Amongst them sat the editor or subeditor, arranging and rearranging the material in the hope of seeing the vital patterns of sense division and development, word history and meaning.  Only then could the entry be drafted, eventually emerging in the finished text.”  62

“…etymology can point one way, and evidence of usage (even by highly educated writers) in another – in ways which are not necessarily reconcilable.”  84

“Thomas Carlyle’s view of history as a “distillation of Rumour’” 99

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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