By Tej N Dhar
Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction, Lynda Mugglestone, Oxford University Press, Pp 140 (PB), £ 7.99
We generally think of dictionaries as objects that have always been there, although that is not true. In her new book, Mugglestone takes us on a fascinating journey to show how dictionaries came to be what we find them today and the kind of hard work that has been put in by dedicated scholars to make them truthful and authoritative books about the magic of word.
Dictionaries differ in their size, corpus, purpose, and the audience for whom they are meant; they are monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual. They are about languages and their various registers and dialects and their regional variations. They are little, pocket, one volume, two volumes, or multiple volumes. They are in print or online, for adults or for children. They also differ on the basis of their range and coverage of words.
The history of dictionaries is truly amazing. Earliest attempt in this direction was making wordlists and can be traced to around 200 BC in Sumeria. Then we see them grow in China, Greece, and different parts of Europe. In fact, systematic attempts of this kind were first made about Latin, and slowly extended to other languages, such as French, Dutch, and Italian. Richard Mulcaster proposed the first English dictionary, and the first printed one made by Robert Cowdrey appeared in 1604. The efforts continued till we got the famous one by Samuel Johnson.
The craft of making dictionaries is quite tedious. Johnson often wrote in his dictionary prefaces about the toil and weariness that he had to undergo, for careful attention has to be paid to the meaning, pronunciation, spelling, etymology, and use of words. Lexicography gradually became an art, which required hard labour and fieldwork for gathering data and careful editing by the editor. Much of this is done now with the help of computers and software engineers, but the final editorial decisions are still made by the editor.
Mugglestone also discusses several other interesting aspects related to the nature and character of dictionaries. These include their authority, issues related to linguistic corruption and contamination, various ways of including new words, differences in the meaning of words as a result of national mutabilities and cultural variations, and issues related to moral truths. These days print dictionaries have to compete with electronic and digital dictionaries. We also have dictionaries like Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary, which differ considerably from the dictionaries that are quite familiar.
Mugglestone’s book is a valuable storehouse of information about the growth and development of the art of making dictionaries. It is a must for all those who are interested in knowing how words have grown in numbers, how their meaning has changed over time, and how forces of varied kinds impact the growth of a living language. It can also be of interest to all other kinds of readers.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6DP UK)