The brief history of HEL-LEX

Although the Helsinki Society for Historical Lexicography was founded in 2014, the idea that a new association devoted to historical lexicography and lexicology was needed had been developing over the preceding ten years. It all started in 2004, when at the initial suggestion of Prof. Terttu Nevalainen Rod McConchie sent an email around to colleagues at the Research Unit for Variation and Change in English at the University of Helsinki inviting those interested in the history of dictionaries to a meeting to discuss the possibility of organising a symposium on the topic. That initial brainwave soon led to the first of three successful symposia, all three organised by largely the same committee in 2005, 2008 and 2012.

The first HEL-LEX symposium, entitled “HEL-LEX: New Approaches in English Historical Lexis”, was held in Helsinki in March 2005. The symposium was organised in the Vuorikatu premises of the Research Unit for Variation and Change in English to which most members of the organising committee belonged. The symposium attracted a surprising amount of interest with participants from ten countries around the world and three world-class plenary speakers: Zoltán Kövecses, Gabriele Stein and Ian Lancashire. The selected proceedings of the symposium were edited by R. W. McConchie, Olga Timofeeva, Heli Tissari, and Tanja Säily and published in 2006 by Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

The second HEL-LEX symposium was held three years later, this time at Lammi biological station. Despite the remote location, or perhaps because of it, the second symposium managed to replicate the success of the inaugural meeting, again attracting participants from around the world. The plenary speakers were again leading figures in the field: Julie Coleman, Elizabeth Knowles and the late Dieter Kastovsky. The selected proceedings, again published by Cascadilla Proceedings Project, were edited by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö.

The third HEL-LEX symposium, the last to be held in Finland, followed the established model. Organised in March 2012 at Tvärminne biological station, HEL-LEX 3 was once again a success with the added attraction of a long walk on the frozen sea. For the third time in a row, the symposium also managed to invite superb plenary speakers: Michael Adams, Philip Durkin and Lynda Mugglestone. The proceedings volume, published by Cascadilla, was edited by R. W. McConchie, Teo Juvonen, Mark Kaunisto, Minna Nevala, and Jukka Tyrkkö.

Over the years, core members of the organising team had been discussing the idea of formalising the activities behind HEL-LEX in the form of a scholarly association. It was becoming clear that the time was approaching to let someone else organise future symposia under the HEL-LEX banner, and at the same time there was also a growing sense that the need of scholarship in historical lexicography, not only in English but across all languages, could be advanced by a society capable of organising events and promoting research. The idea of such an association was first given public voice at the closing discussion at HEL-LEX 3 and the proposal was met with encouraging enthusiasm. Delightfully, more than one member of the HEL-LEX family also stepped forward with an offer to organise the next meeting. In post-symposium discussions it was decided that organising the first HEL-LEX outside Finland would be trusted to Lynda Mugglestone and Philip Durkin at the University of Oxford. HEL-LEX 4, also known as OX-LEX, will be held in March 2015.

The lost history of medical lexicography

If the history of dictionaries has been a tale of relative scholarly neglect over the years, the same is still more true of medical lexicography. One looks in vain among reference collections for such subject headings, even in the catalogues of specialist medical libraries, including those which hold many medical dictionaries. And yet, with the problem of how to deal with the exponential growth of knowledge and how to distinguish the good and useful from the worthless and spurious which arose with the slow decline of the era of scribal transmission and the advent of printing, dictionaries which assemble, collate and re-distribute specialist knowledge became increasingly significant.

This can be traced not only through the history of the dictionaries as published artefacts, but also through the individual entries. To take a single example, the marked difference in defining scrophula between Robert James (A Medicinal Dictionary 1743), who discusses it at serious length, and John Quincy (Lexicon Physico-medicum 1719), who dismisses out of hand it as a genuine illness, is striking. Furthermore, in this area, ‘Every act of communication excludes as well as includes,’ as Professor Jim Secord wrote recently (2004: 662).

Title-page of John Quincy’s Lexicon Physico-medicum, 1719, Andrew Bell, London.

Literature on this is very brief and hopelessly inadequate for the most part. One still opens volume after volume on the history of early modern and eighteenth-century medicine, however, without finding so much a hint of the existence and role of medical dictionaries. Accounts of the early medical dictionaries have tended to present merely entries as curiosities, usually for being the first occurrence of a word, George Motherby’s first listing of panacea in his A New Medical Dictionary (1775) being a case in point. A piece by Mark Twain on Robert James, one of the longest early articles, falls into the same category, although it is a grisly and patronising account of the horrors of eighteenth century medicine, deliberately eschewing any attempt to understand it in its own terms.

There is certainly published research on medical terminology and medical terms in dictionaries, however, and this is an expanding area, but the dictionaries themselves and those who compiled them remain largely in the outer darkness. The first, by Andrew Boorde, dates from the mid-sixteenth century, John Quincy’s dictionary was still exerting considerable influence into the early nineteenth century, Robert James’s gargantuan compilation ran to 3370 pages, and was translated into French by Denis Diderot. Research articles on the history and nature of these fascinating dictionaries are slowly beginning to appear, but the whole area remains a goldmine of rich research pickings.

The lexicographers themselves are also poorly known, and sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography usually offer a bare minimum and occasionally outright misinformation. Benjamin Lara, the author of a surgical dictionary published in 1796 is not listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at all, and almost nothing is known about the life of John Barrow, whose medical dictionary appeared in 1749. Robert James is known mainly for his association with Samuel Johnson, which distorts our understanding of his life and work.

Blancard’s The Physical Dictionary, 5th edition, 1708, once owned by William Vigar, apothecary of Brewton in Somerset, who was buried in 1729.

I’ve been trying to redress this imbalance in a small way, and hope to publish a book on English medical lexicography in the next year or so.

Rod McConchie


McConchie, R. W. (2009) ‘ “Propagating what the Ancients taught and the moderns improved”: The Sources of George Motherby’s A New Medical Dictionary; or, a General Repository of Physic, 1775’ in Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 2) edited by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö, 123-133. Somerville: Cascadilla Press.

McConchie, R. W. (2010) ‘Converting “this uncertain science into an art”: Innovation and Tradition in George Motherby’s A New Medical Dictionary, or, General repository of physic, 1775’ in Adventuring in Dictionaries: New Studies in the History of Lexicography edited by John Considine, 126-148. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Secord, James A. (2004) ‘Knowledge in TransitIsis, Vol. 95, 4, 654-672.

Tyrkkö, Jukka (2009) ‘A Physical Dictionary (1657): The First English Medical Dictionary’ in Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 2) edited by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö, 171-187. Somerville: Cascadilla Press.