Murray's filing system (OUP Museum)
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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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Replacing definitions
Richardson broke new ground by putting the quotations on a much higher footing in his dictionary than the definitions. Murray describes his practice as follows:
Observing how much light was shed on the meaning of words by Johnson's quotations, [Richardson] was impressed with the notion that, in a dictionary, definitions are unnecessary, that quotations alone are sufficient; and he proceeded to carry this into effect by making a dictionary without definitions or explanations of meaning, or at least with the merest rudiments of them, but illustrating each group of words by a large series of quotations. In the collections of these he displayed immense research. Going far beyond the limits of Dr Johnson, he quoted from authors back to the year 1300, and probably for the first time made Chaucer and Gower and Piers Ploughman living names to many readers. And his special notion was quite correct in theory. Quotations will tell the full meaning of a word if one has enough of them; but it takes a great many to be enough, and it takes a reader a long time to read and weigh all the quotations, and to deduce from them the meanings which might be put before him in a line or two. As a fact, while Richardson's notion was correct in theory, mundane conditions of time and space rendered it humanly impracticable. Nevertheless, the mass of quotations, most of them with exact references, collected by him...was a service never to be undervalued or forgotten... (Murray 1900: 44-5)
This clearly explains the importance that Murray attached to quotations in a dictionary. They are the raw material from which a lexicographer construes the meaning of a word and constructs its definition – as in role 6 of quotations in Johnson's dictionary identified above. 

Close scrutiny of the quotations enables the lexicographer – or in Richardson's case, the reader – to identify and discriminate between various different possible senses (role 5 of quotations above).
Last Updated ( Monday, 14 February 2011 )
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