19th-century historical lexicography

19th-century scientific method

Over the late 18th century into the 19th century, linguistic studies in Europe underwent a transformation. Philosophical speculation on language origin and theories of meaning began to be displaced by evidence-based research into historical texts of European vernacular languages by the philologists Franz Bopp, Rasmus Rask, Jakob Grimm, and others; in turn this research illuminated links and relationships between these languages and pointed to their shared origin in an earlier Indo-European tongue. (Richardson’s dictionary 1836-7 was an anomaly in this respect, in its reliance on the unfounded etymological speculations of Horne Tooke: see further Language and morality).

Parallel intellectual developments in the study of the natural and life sciences – culminating in Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1859 – were similarly rooted in painstaking empirical observation of surviving geological and biological phenomena such as sedimentary layers in rocks, fossils, or the characteristics of living organisms. The feature uniting all these disciplinary shifts was the observation of actual physical evidence, whether words, rocks, fossils, or other life forms. Enumerating and classifying such phenomena allowed researchers to construct histories of past eras based on data rather than conjecture.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of this methodological and theoretical revolution. 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

The new empirical approach was robustly supported by the London Philological Society, whose members set up the OED. As the phoneticist A. J. Ellis said in a presidential address to the Society in 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’ (Ellis 1873: 251-2).

The ‘scientific’ nature of the new lexicography was fully recognized by the OED editors themselves. In his ‘General Explanations’, printed in the first instalment of the Dictionary published in 1884, the chief editor Murray drew specific parallels between his work and that of the scientist, comparing ‘that vast aggregate of words and phrases which constitutes the Vocabulary of English-speaking men’ to comparable material studied by ‘the astronomer’ or ‘the zoologist or botanist’ (this document is reproduced at http://public.oed.com/wp-content/uploads/General-Explanations.pdf [accessed 30 April 2018]). 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 constituting 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 more on historical linguistic study in this period, see Morpurgo Davies 1998.

Dictionaries based on historical evidence

Where historical lexicography was concerned, ‘data’ took the form of excerpts from historical texts, and ‘scientific method’ required that data to be sourced as widely as possible. Both Johnson and Richardson had gathered quotation evidence from past texts, but what the newly conceived historical dictionaries of the 19th century set out to supply was historical coverage, so that present-day vocabulary could be seen and explained in the context of changes and developments over time. This principle was first fully articulated by the German classicist Franz Passow in a passage written in 1825:

The dictionary should … set out … the life story of each single word in a conveniently ordered overview; it should state where and when each one was (as far as we know, of course) first hit upon, in which directions it developed … and finally, at what period it disappeared from use.

quoted Considine (2014a: 262)

Independently, a lexicographer of Scots had already hit upon the same idea: John Jamieson, whose Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language appeared in 1808, with a supplement in 1825. Other such dictionaries of European languages, based on quotations from actual usage, were soon embarked on elsewhere (if not so soon completed), notably in Germany (the Grimm brothers’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, 1852–1960); France (Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française, 1863–1872); and the Netherlands (Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, 1864–1998). This was the intellectual context in which the OED was conceived, and its editors sought to improve decisively on past lexicographical practice in English by gathering quotations much more widely and thoroughly than before, not (like Johnson) for the purposes of Pleasure and instruction, but to create the evidential basis for a comprehensive history of vocabulary from 1100 to the present day.

See further Considine 2014a, 2014b, Rennie 2012, Osselton 2000.

Beginnings of the new dictionary & importance of quotation evidence

The need for a dictionary of English based on full historical evidence, i.e. examples of actual usage over past centuries of English, was clearly articulated at the start of the project that turned into the OED. In the two lectures delivered to the Philological Society in November 1857 which famously initiated the work, R. C. 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 the Dictionary’s first editor, Herbert Coleridge, intended that the data itself (sc. in the form of quotations) should be reproduced in the printed Dictionary as evidence. ‘”Every word should be made to tell its own story”‘, he wrote, quoting Passow, ‘the story of its birth and life, and in many cases of its death, and even occasionally of its resuscitation’ (Coleridge 1860: 72; see the Philological Society’s Proposal (1859: 4) and Considine 2014a).

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’.

quoted K. M. E. Murray (1977: 344)

Murray vigorously stressed the importance of the quotations and their historical coverage in the Preface to volume I of the Dictionary (letters A-B), published in 1888. Here he explained – in another echo of Passow – that the ‘facts’ presented in the Dictionary were illustrated by ‘a series of quotations ranging from the first known occurrence of the word to the latest, or down to the present day; the word being thus made to exhibit its own history and meaning’ (p. vi).

He repeated this vital information in 1900, when delivering his Romanes lecture on the history of lexicography at Oxford, picking up on Coleridge’s parallel between a dictionary entry and a life-story:

This dictionary [i.e. the OED] superadds to all the features that have been successively evolved by the long chain of workers, the historical information which Dr Trench desiderated. It seeks not merely to record every word that has been used in the language for the last 800 years, with its written form and signification, and the pronunciation of current words, but to furnish a biography of each word.

Murray 1900: 46-7

Last updated on 9 December 2020