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Words, Words, Words: English-Language Dictionaries and the People Who Made Them

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Monday, May 20, 2024 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1K0474
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Dictionaries are repositories of erudition, monuments to linguistic authority, and battlefields in cultural and political struggles. For centuries, they were also works of almost superhuman endurance, produced by people who devoted themselves for years, even decades, to the wearisome labor of corralling, recording, and defining the vocabulary of a language. Dictionaries also are often beautiful objects: typographically innovative, designed to project learning and authority.

However they may have been written and compiled, dictionaries induce us to ask about the basis of authority. Who gets to say what is an English word and what is not, what words mean, and how words should be used? The 19th century saw a craze for nonstandard, regional dialect, the collection of which led to crowdsourcing before that word had even been invented (the same basic method continues today with the Urban Dictionary website).

In 1944, the first dictionary by a Black American (of slang “hepster jive”) appeared. The first gay dictionary emerged in the early 1970s, followed in the 1980s by the first dictionary for feminists and the first for hackers. Meanwhile, the form of dictionaries has changed—especially since 1995 and the start-up website Today, the future of the printed dictionary is in question, but the central relevance of dictionaries, whatever their format, to communication and culture is unchanged.

Authors and educators Bryan A. Garner and Jack Lynch share some of the stories behind these great works of scholarship and the people who produced them, including towering figures of English lexicography—Samuel Johnson (who mocked his own trade by defining a dictionary writer as “a harmless drudge”); the American patriot Noah Webster; the Oxford English Dictionary’s James Murray—and many more obscure lexicographers whose achievements and biographies are no less fascinating.

Garner and Lynch’s book, Hardly Harmless Drudgery: A 500-Year Pictorial History of the Lexicographic Geniuses, Sciolists, Plagiarists, and Obsessives Who Defined the English Language (Godine), is available for purchase.

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