A lexicographical whodunnit, 12 May 2023

Here is the abstract of the talk to be given by Dr. Fredric Dolezal at our Annual Meeting in 2023 (see the Events page for more details).

On First Looking into Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s Copy of Wilkins’s and Lloyd’s Dictionaries: A Lexicographical Whodunnit

Fredric Dolezal, University of Georgia

While conducting a census of library holdings of John Wilkins’s Essay (1668), which includes topical and alphabetical dictionaries of ordinary English words and phrases, I discovered an intriguing copy which contains copious, even voluminous, handwritten manuscript notes that show a close reading and engagement with the lexicographic content of the print artifact, even to the extent of binding within the text interleaf pages to supplement and expand these notes. Especially interesting is the introduction of illustrative quotations into the Essay from a variety of literary sources – most notably from Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of Tub first printed in 1704 – which most likely precedes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and most certainly, the New English Dictionary edited by James Murray. Are we looking at the beginnings of a derivative work of lexicography? Is this a dictionary in progress by an as-yet unknown scribal hand? Or is it the passionate pursuit of an unnamed and unknowable arm-chair intellectual engaged in his or her own textual and semantic analysis? Along the way we will explore how ink, paper, watermarks and the transcribed illustrative quotations offer clues for dating the notes. The audience will be invited to participate in this forensic dictionary whodunnit.

Abstracts of upcoming talks

Here are the abstracts of the talks to be given at our February 2023 seminar (see the Events page for more details).

Nordic loanwords in the English language

Félix Duconseille (Strasbourg)

The goal of this work, as part of my internship during the second year of Master, was to list and index the loanwords coming from Nordic and Uralic languages in the English language, in order to analyse the usage restricted to each language and to certain periods of time. On the basis of the OED dictionary I filtered the loanwords by language of the etymon, then sort them chronologically and by field in order to identify if there were recurrent themes.

My main results were that the words from Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are principally related to the scientific field, and to the geology in particular, whereas those coming from Icelandic are related to the mythology, and the Faeroese loanwords are related to nature. As for the Finnish, loanwords also science terms, but are also related to the culture, as the sauna and the sisu for instance. However, concerning the Hungarian language, in its loanwords, the spelling of origin is regularly respected in English. Nonetheless, the Hungarian loanwords rarely have a clear etymology because of the other languages influences (Italian, Latin, Arabic, Turkish). Furthermore, it is important to note that words coming from Old Norse and Proto-Scandinavian have undergone few changes, and are as quite as the origin word in contemporary English, such as callcake and fast.

To conclude, my results show that the English language, as a Germanic language, had a direct impact with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Numerous words are related to a specific period of time, and to a very specific context. What is captivating is to notice that some words are used only in a single part of the English-speaking community, or that some words are used with a different spelling, or even another interpretation.

Defining Old English: periodisation in dictionaries of Old English from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century

Dr Rachel Fletcher

Since the Old English began to be established as an object of academic pursuit in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lexicographers have been attempting to document its vocabulary. In doing so, they have helped to codify the idea of Old English as a period of linguistic history – a stage in the development of English that has certain characteristics and is exemplified by certain medieval texts. However, any attempt at defining precise periods in linguistic history faces an unavoidable challenge in the gradual nature of linguistic change, and historical lexicography is no exception. When we examine dictionaries of Old English more closely, it becomes apparent that their representations of Old English as a period are often unstable and inconsistent. This instability is particularly noticeable when it comes to identifying the end of the Old English period, the point that marks the limit of the dictionary’s coverage of the historical linguistic record.

Using examples from major dictionaries of Old English from the seventeenth century to the present day, I show how generations of lexicographers have wrestled with the question of when the Old English period ended. How have lexicographers reconciled – or failed to reconcile – the gradual nature of linguistic change with the definitive character expected of a dictionary? What can this tell us about developments in lexicography and in History of English scholarship, and what are the implications for the study of Old English today?

Changing religious terminology in medieval England, 4 May 2018

Here is the abstract of the talk to be given by Prof. Olga Timofeeva at our Annual Meeting in 2018 (see the Events page for more details).

Vices and Virtues: Pastoral care and lexical innovation in the thirteenth century

Olga Timofeeva, University of Zurich

The religious life of western Europe around 1200 saw a remarkable re-orientation towards greater emphasis on moral instruction of the laity, especially, following the decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the spread of mendicant orders from the 1220s onwards (d’Avray 1985: 13–16). It was now obligatory that the Christians of both sexes confessed their sins and received the Communion at least once a year (Jones 2011: 2–3). Obliged to preach, instruct, receive confessions, and perform other spiritual ministrations in the vernacular, the clergy had to approach these tasks with an arsenal of English religious terminology that could name and explain the persons of the Trinity, the main points of the Creed, the seven deadly sins, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the formulas used in confession and baptism, and so on. In one of the key subdomains of the religious lexis – terminology for vices and virtues – a peculiar division of vocabulary along etymological lines was taking shape: English-based lexemes were used to denote sins (greediness, lust, pride, sloth, wrath), whereas lexemes to denote virtues were predominantly French in origin (charity, chastity, diligence, humility, patience, temperance). Whether these distributions have a sociolinguistic dimension is addressed in this paper. In particular, I aim at establishing the patterns that have determined survival and loss of old (English) lexemes and adoption of new (French) ones. I take into account frequencies of individual Old English terms (if available) in the DOEC and track geographic distributions of old and new terms in early Middle English, by means of LAEME mapping function. As in my previous study (Timofeeva fc), lexical change in the religious domain is reconstructed against the social changes within the church, such as the new ways of pastoral instruction and preaching, by examining the specificity of social networks within the clergy and between the clergy and secular communities.


d’Avray, David L. 1985. The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

DOEC = The Dictionary of Old English Corpus in Electronic Form. 2009. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, with John Price Wilkin and Xin Xiang. Toronto: University of Toronto. http://tapor.library.utoronto.ca/doecorpus/ (accessed on 20 July 2017).

Jones, David. 2011. Friars’ Tales: Thirteenth-century exempla from the British Isles. Manchester Medieval Sources Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Laing, Margaret. 2013–. A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, 1150–1325, Version 3.2 Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/laeme2/laeme2.html.

Timofeeva, Olga. Fc. Survival and loss of Old English religious vocabulary between 1150 and 1350. English Language and Linguistics special issue for 2018.

Japan(ese) and dictionaries, 2 Feb 2018

Here are the abstracts of the two excellent papers presented at our most recent seminar, focusing on the latest and the earliest dictionaries from Japanese to a European language.

Uusi japani-suomi sanakirja, 2017
[‘The new Japanese-Finnish dictionary, 2017’]

Pirjo-Riitta Kuusikko

Japani-Suomi sanakirja on merkittävä Japanin ja Suomen välinen yhteistyöhanke. Se on toteutettu pitkälti ystävyysyhdistysten ja etenkin Japani-Suomi yhdistyksen puheenjohtajan Haruko Hayakawan tuella. Kyseessä on laajin ja perusteellisin tähän mennessä ilmestynyt japani-suomi sanakirja. Sen sana-artikkelit runsaine esimerkkeineen valottavat monipuolisesti japanilaista kulttuuria, ajattelutapaa ja historiaa.

Sanakirjan julkaisija on Japani-Suomi yhdistys (Tokio) ja tekijät ovat projektipäällikkö Petri Niemelä (PhD) ja Pirjo-Riitta Kuusikko (MA), jotka vastasivat sana-artikkelien laatimisesta ja tarkastuksesta, sekä leksikografi Hiroyasu Kato ja prof. Kingo Yoshida. Lisäksi lukuisat muut henkilöt myötävaikuttivat sanakirjan syntyyn.

Sanakirjaprojekti sai alkunsa jo vuonna 1997 Suomen Japanin Instituutin perustavassa kokouksessa. Vuonna 2004 julkaistiin 5000 sanan perussanasto CD-levynä, mutta vasta vuonna 2017, monien vaiheiden jälkeen, julkaistiin sanakirja koko laajuudessaan painetussa muodossa. Vuoden 2018 aikana on odotettavissa digitaalinen versio.

Sanakirjassa on yli 37 000 hakusanaa, yli 11 000 yhdyssanaa, yli 2000 sanontaa ja sananlaskua sekä yli 60 000 esimerkkiä. Sivuja on 1844. Hakusanat ovat virallisen japanilaisen kana-kirjoitusjärjestelmän mukaiset.

Sana-artikkelin rakenne on seuraava: hakusana, kirjoitusasu, lainasana, sanaluokka, käännösvastine, esimerkit, synonyymit ja antonyymit, yhdyssanat, sanonnat ja sananlaskut.

Sanakirjan hinta on 250€ ja se on tilattavissa seuraavasta osoitteesta:

Vocabvlario da lingoa de Iapam (1603) and spellings of Japanese words in the letters of the English EIC merchants in Japan

Samuli Kaislaniemi

Early seventeenth-century English East India Company (EIC) merchants had a vested interest in learning local and regional languages spoken in the East Indies. In this light, it is surprising that the EIC did not invest in the creation of language-learning materials for its employees. In contrast, Catholic missionaries systematically studied and codified Asian languages, as part of their work in spreading the gospel, and established printing presses to disseminate the fruits of their labours. This study looks at whether EIC merchants in Japan might have had the use of a missionary-compiled dictionary.

The Jesuit mission press was established in Japan in 1590. By the time the EIC arrived in 1613, the press had been used to print at least 70 different works. One of these was the first dictionary from Japanese to a European language (Portuguese), Vocabvlario da lingoa de Iapam (1603). The EIC withdrew from Japan in 1623, but a sizeable corpus of documents from their venture survives. There is no explicit record of the EIC merchants having owned and used a copy of the Jesuit dictionary. This study looks at indirect evidence, the spellings of Japanese words and names in the letters written by the EIC merchants in Japan, and compares them with spellings found in the Vocabvlario. It finds that although the EIC merchants do not appear to have referred to the Jesuit dictionary for the spelling of Japanese words in general, their spellings of Japanese proper names shows clear influence from Portuguese.

Hapax legomena in diachronic corpora, 12 May 2017

Here is the abstract of the talk given by Dr Mark Kaunisto at our Annual Meeting in 2017.

Hapax legomena in diachronic corpora: neologisms or just rare words?

Mark Kaunisto, University of Tampere

The aim to quantify the productivity of derivational affixes, i.e. the potential that affixes have to produce new words, has attracted a great deal of attention from linguists in the last couple of decades. The same goes for the interest in tracking historical trends in the popularity of affixes; at some points, affixes may have been used more to produce new words than at other times. One method that has been used to this end is to examine the numbers of first citations of words with a given affix in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). However, this method has been criticized because of the inaccuracies and gaps in the dictionary. Instead, Baayen (1991) and others have focused on the occurrences of so-called hapax legomena or hapaxes in corpora (i.e., items occurring only once), the basic rationale behind this being the fact that neologisms in corpora are most likely found among low-frequency items. Different indexes indicating the degree of productivity of affixes have been proposed, with the number of hapax legomena playing a major role.

It has been observed that hapaxes in corpora are not necessarily new words, but that they may also include items which are just rare or even archaic. If we consider this from the point of view of diachronic studies, it is relevant to ask whether hapaxes in corpora representing different periods contain genuine neologisms in proportions which are similar from one period to another. The Early Modern English period (1500-1700), for example, is known for the great experimentation in the application of different word-formational patterns, resulting in a high number of superfluous lexical items, and many unnecessary words were later dropped from use. One could then assume that the ratio between recent coinages and other words among the hapaxes is not necessarily constant, but trends of lexical expansion and obsolescence may be reflected among such words in varying degrees. To examine the issue more closely, subsets of hapax legomena were examined in the three subperiods of the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts 3.0 (1710-80, 1780-1850, and 1850-1920). From each section of the corpus, hapaxes beginning with the letter m were first examined, and the dates of publication of the texts in which the hapaxes were found were compared with the dates of first citations of the words in the OED. In addition, hapaxes ending in ‑ity and ‑ness as well as ‑ic and ‑ical were analysed in a similar way. The proportions of hapaxes occurring in texts within 50 years of the first OED citations of the words OED were observed in each subperiod of the corpus.

Based on the results of the study, it is argued that the study of hapaxes in corpora and their first citations in the OED in combination could add to the accuracy in examining productivity of affixes, as attention is primarily paid to those hapaxes which were verifiably recent in the corpus. Although the OED is used as the basis of this verification, the result of such a process does not simply mean a general step towards embracing the OED data as such. As corpus hapaxes include many antedatings to the OED entries, combining the observations from corpora and the OED can be regarded as bringing the benefits of both resources together.

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.