Identifying and discriminating meaning

Role 5 of quotations: to enable the lexicographer to identify more senses of a word and discriminate between them more accurately and precisely

Scrutinizing words as they had been used in examples of real usage – quotations from literature, philosophy, history or elsewhere – opened Johnson’s eyes to something new: the range of meanings that apparently simple words could communicate, according to their different contexts and their different grammatical functions. In many instances, such words (often verbs, like ‘take’ or ‘set’), had been only cursorily treated by previous lexicographers, themselves usually reliant on word-lists provided by their predecessors. So while Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730) found three different senses of the verb ‘take’, and Benjamin Martin’s Lingua Britannica (1749) found 17, Johnson identified 66 different senses, together with a further 50-odd senses of this verb when combined with a preposition or used idiomatically. The same sorts of proportions can be found with many other words. (Bailey’s and Martin’s dictionaries, along with many others, can be consulted on the database ECCO [accessed 20 April 2018] – available to subscribers only).

The consequence was that he included many more quotations than might have been expected by a casual user. Johnson is careful to justify this largesse to any reader inclined to censure him for ‘the multiplicity’ of examples:

…those quotations which to careless or unskilful perusers appear only to repeat the same sense, will often exhibit, to a more accurate examiner, diversities of signification, or, at least, afford different shades of the same meaning: one will shew the word applied to persons, another to things; one will express an ill, another a good, and a third a neutral sense; one will prove the expression genuine from an ancient authour; another will shew it elegant from a modern: a doubtful authority is corroborated by another of more credit; an ambiguous sentence is ascertained by a passage clear and determinate; the word, how often soever repeated, appears with new associates and in different combinations, and every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language.

Johnson 2015: 97-98

The main editor (1879-1915) of OED, J. A. H. Murray, fully appreciated the importance of this aspect of Johnson’s dictionary, which he thought a ‘marvellous piece of work’ (Murray 1900: 43). He wrote that ‘the special new feature which it contributed to the evolution of the modern dictionary was the illustration of the use of each word by a selection of literary quotations, and the more delicate appreciation and discrimination of senses which this involved and rendered possible’ (Murray 1900: 38-9).

Murray himself was well aware of the rewards to be had from close analysis of quotations, also of the difficulties involved in doing so (see Defining basic words). Several accounts survive of ‘Dr. Murray [being] discovered walking in the midst of the senses spread out over his drawing-room carpet!’, like this one recorded by his grand-daughter in her biography:

One of his assistants…describes coming into the work room at seven o’clock on an autumn morning. The tables, the chairs, the desks, even the floor were snowed under with the verb to put….Sir James…was playing chess with the senses. ‘Do you remember how Euclid defines a point as having position but no magnitude?…yet “point” occupied twenty one columns. I thought “put” was a little word, but it is going to take even more than that number’.

K. M. E. Murray 1977: 298

Syntactical as well as lexical information

In addition, examining how words functioned in their contexts led Johnson to recognize the importance of providing syntactic as well as semantic information about a word. As he put it in his Plan:

Words having been hitherto considered as separate and unconnected, are now to be likewise examined as they are ranged in their various relations to others by the rules of syntax or construction, to which I do not know that any regard has been yet shown in English dictionaries, and in which the grammarians can give little assistance.

Johnson 2015: 44

Although both Johnson and OED provide a certain amount of syntactical information, it was not until 1987 that the full implications of this remark were taken on board by a monolingual English dictionary: the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary, which supplies an ‘Extra Column’ for such purposes as ‘stating the limits of a usage, and its typical features’, and giving ‘a syntactic pattern that always, or nearly always, carries the usage’ (Sinclair et al (1987), Introduction: xvii).

Go to next page on Johnson’s dictionary: Raw material for a dictionary.

Last updated on 18 September 2019