Literature and the lexicon: initial questions

Given the OED’s claim to be ‘The definitive record of the English language’ (the strap-line appearing on every page on its website), several questions can be asked about the degree to which literary quotations inflect that record. For example,

  • to what extent do literary writers shape and influence the lexicon more generally, as the OED’s choice of quotation sources would seem to imply?
  • what sort of evidence might be used to answer this question one way or another?
  • what issues arise when dictionaries use poets and other creative writers as sources for usage and the history of usage?

The quantitative and analytic studies of OED now enabled by electronic searching confirm the importance of literary sources in the OED. In all its editions to date, its quotations function as the bedrock of the Dictionary – and in all its editions to date, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dryden, Milton, Tennyson and many other creative writers from the traditional literary canon are among its most quoted sources.

Portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio (1623), copper engraving by Martin Droeshout. Source: Wikipedia

None of these questions is easy to answer. The most obvious resource to turn to for the first two is the OED itself, as the only analytic and relatively comprehensive record we possess of the history of English vocabulary from 1150 to the present. Clearly, however, we cannot evaluate a resource by appealing to its own selection of evidence.

To elucidate all three questions, however, we can take into consideration some of the historical and cultural influences on the OED lexicographers at various stages of the Dictionary’s compilation and composition, and look at some of the results where literary quotations have been used. See Literature and the nation, Initial practice, and other pages in the current section (listed at Literary sources).

Writers themselves have often had strong views on the relationship between ‘ordinary’ and ‘literary’ or poetic language. In 1742 Thomas Gray wrote: ‘The language of the age is never the language of poetry…poetry…has a language peculiar to itself’1.

But was T. S. Eliot (1942) right: ‘Poetry must not stray too far from the ordinary everyday language which we use and hear…it cannot afford to lose its contact with the changing language of common intercourse’ (Kermode 1975: 110)? Or G. M. Hopkins (1879): ‘[Poetic language] should be the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself, but not…an obsolete one’ (Abbott 1945: 89)?

These questions have been extensively discussed by both literary critics and linguists over the course of the 20th century and beyond; we look at some of them in the following pages. But the lexicographers themselves have also expressed doubts on the utility and suitability of quotations from literary writers, often on practical grounds, which have relevance to the third of the questions initially posed above (‘What issues arise when dictionaries use poets and other creative writers as sources for usage and the history of usage?’). See next page on Lexicographical reservations.

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  1. Toynbee and others 1935: vol. 1, p. 192: letter from Gray to R. West; cf. Taylor 1998.