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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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19c science
OED and nineteenth-century scientific methodology
It was early understood that it was in the assembling of hitherto unmatched quantities of empirical evidence, in the form of quotations, that the London Philological Society's Dictionary (as it was first called) would diverge from and surpass its predecessors (role 6 of quotations in Johnson's dictionary). Looking back on the Dictionary's achievement in 1933, W. A. Craigie and C. T. Onions wrote (in the Preface to 1933 re-issue of OED1):
Its basis is a collection of some five million excerpts from English literature of every period amassed by an army of voluntary readers and the editorial staff. Such a collection of evidence – it is represented by a selection of about 1,800,000 quotations actually printed – could form the only possible foundation for the historical treatment of every word and idiom which is the raison d'etre of the work. It is a fact everywhere recognized that the consistent pursuit of this evidence has worked a revolution in the art of lexicography.
This reliance on empirical data is part and parcel of a general intellectual shift in the objectives and methods of academic study during the nineteenth century, and is paralleled by the advances in the natural sciences which took place at this time.

As Hans Aarsleff has put it, in a passage often quoted:
the decisive turn in language study occurred when the philosophical, a priori method of the eighteenth century was abandoned in favour of the historical, a posteriori method of the nineteenth. The former began with mental categories and sought their exemplification in language, as in universal grammar, and based etymology on conjectures about the origin of language. The latter sought only facts, evidence, and demonstration; it divorced the study of language from the study of mind. (Aarsleff 1983: 127)[1]
The OED could be said to represent the chief flowering of this attitude towards language study in England, since its lexicographers set out to base their work on empirical investigation of words rather than on unscientific theories of language.

This aim was clearly articulated by the men themselves. In the two lectures delivered to the Philological Society in November 1857 which famously initiated the OED, Richard Chenevix Trench called for rigorously comprehensive documentation of the history of every word in the English language by studying its occurrences in all known texts, while as we have seen (in role 2 of quotations), the Dictionary's first editor, Herbert Coleridge, intended that the data itself (sc. in the form of quotations) should be produced as evidence: ' "every word should be made to tell its own story" – the story of its birth and life, and in many cases of its death, and even occasionally of its resuscitation'. The linguist Henry Sweet, another regular contributor and friend to the Dictionary, made the same point in 1877 when he wrote on behalf of the Philological Society urging Oxford University Press to take on financial responsibility for (what was about to become known as the) Oxford English Dictionary:
The great advance of Philology of late years has completely changed the conditions of a good dictionary. What is now required is fullness of citations and historical method, or, in other words, a full number of citations from every period of the language arranged so as to exhibit the history of each word. It is also requisite that every department, whether etymology or pronunciation etc., must be treated according to the latest results of linguistic science. But the essential groundwork is a full body of citations'. (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 344)
In his 'General Explanations' printed in 1884 in the first fascicle of OED, Murray drew specific parallels between his work and that of the scientist, comparing the English vocabulary successively to the material studied by 'the astronomer...the zoologist or botanist...the naturalist' ('General Explanations'; reproduced at http://www.oed.com/archive/oed2-preface/general.html [accessed 8 August 2005]). Several years later, in 1900, he described the Dictionary as 'permeated...through and through with the scientific method of the century' and said he believed that 'the scientific and historical spirit of the nineteenth century has at once called for and rendered possible the Oxford English Dictionary' (Murray 1900: 49, 51).

Such remarks underline the significance of the quotations in the OED as consitituting the raw data, marshalled with objective and consistent thoroughness, on which the Dictionary's chief claim to scientific method and authority was (and is) based.
 
For OED's treatment of scientific vocabulary see [*page under construction] below.


Footnote
[1] The Philological Society's espousal of this empirical approach is robustly stated by A. J. Ellis in his Presidential Address to the Society of 1873: 'We shall do more by tracing the historical growth of one single work-a-day tongue, than by filling waste-paper baskets with reams of paper speculating on the origins of all tongues' (Transactions of the Philological Society, 1873-4: 251-2).
Last Updated ( Friday, 08 April 2011 )
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