Replacing definitions

The profusion of quotations in Richardson’s dictionary might lead the reader to assume that he was building on Johnson’s legacy – and that the editor thoroughly appreciated how Johnson’s scrutiny of words in their varying contexts had informed the detail and nuance of his correspondingly varying definitions (see Identifying and discriminating meaning).

Not at all, however: Richardson subscribed to an entirely different theory of meaning. Following the work of Horne Tooke, he believed that a word’s true sense properly resided in a single primitive etymological original – a benighted etymological theory fashionable in Britain long after its assumptions had been discredited by continental linguistic scholars. In keeping with Tooke’s beliefs, Richardson grouped all derivative and variant forms of a word under the same headword, and simply listed his quotations underneath, without indicating how they instanced different senses of a word and/or different grammatical and syntactical uses. In this way, Richardson dispensed so far as possible with what he dismissed as Johnson’s purely contextual definitions, dismissing them as irrelevant and supererogatory (see further Reddick 2009: 173, and – on Hooke – Language and morality).

Richardson’s linguistic assumptions were thus entirely at odds with those of the OED, which followed best contemporary historical scholarship by looking to all past instances of the use of language to explain the origin and development of words and senses up to the present.

OED’s chief editor, J. A. H. Murray, nevertheless spoke admiringly of Richardson in his account of the ‘Evolution of Lexicography’ (originally delivered as a lecture in Oxford 1900), skating over Richardson’s mistaken ideas and concentrating instead on their positive results – i.e. his generous provision of quotation evidence:

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 described in Raw material, our page on the sixth role of quotations in Johnson’s dictionary.

Last updated on 22 August 2019