Symposium on Approaches to English Historical Lexicography and Lexicology — OX-LEX 4

The fourth symposium in the HEL-LEX series was held March 25th to 27th, 2015, at Pembroke College, Oxford. OX-LEX 4 — the acronym flexibly reflecting the host city — was a wonderfully successfully event both academically and socially, and the organisers Lynda Mugglestone, Philip Durkin, Kathryn Allan, and Edmund Weiner are to be congratulated for a conference where nothing went wrong and everything went right. Rarely able to resist a cheesy literary paraphrase, I believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Pembroke. With apologies I move swiftly on with the report.


It is no exaggeration to say that Oxford is the centre of the English-speaking world when it comes to historical lexicography, and given such a venue it was perhaps no surprise that the turnout of world-class scholars and professional lexicographers was truly outstanding. Three excellent plenary lectures by Clive Upton, Toni Healey, and John Simpson set a rhythm for the three days, each managing to entertain and to educate in equal measure. Indeed, the traditional HEL-LEX spirit of good-natured collegiality was in evidence throughout the symposium both during the sessions and between them. It is difficult and perhaps a little unfair to single out individual papers when the overall quality was so high, but a couple of intellectual highlights for me were Megan Tiddeman’s paper on the mixed-language business accounts of the merchant William Cantelowe and the joint paper of Ondřej Tichý and Jan Čermák on lexical obsolescence and loss. I was also most happy to chair a great session for Kathryn Lowe, Marta Sylvanowich, Ian Lancashire and Elisa Tersigni, and Hans Sauer. A final gem came post festum in the form of Peter Gilliver’s brief but masterful talk about the history of lexicography in Oxford, tracing the lives of lexicographers from John of Garland in the thirteenth century all the way to the present day.

Three HSHL members were in attendance: Rod McConchie, Janne Skaffari, and I. Rod and I gave papers and Janne bravely fought through a cold to spread the word about the society. Rod spoke about the medical doctor and lexicographer Robert James and his magnum opus, A Medicinal Dictionary (1743). James was a friend and collaborator of the most famous English lexicographer and Pembroke alumnus Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Rod’s fascinating paper delved deep into Johnsonian lore about the persona of James contrasting those stories with alternative contemporary accounts. Rod also gave a short introduction to HSHL at the closing session.

For my part, I presented a multilingual and corpus-driven perspective to Late Modern lexicography, discussing the work of the Multilingual Practices in the History of Written English project currently ongoing at the University of Tampere, some statistical methods for identifying dictionary-worthy phraseological units using a combination of frequency information and statistical association measures, and some early findings on how they relate to actual lexicographical practice in the eighteenth century.

In closing, it was a great thrill to see the HEL-LEX concept thriving. News about the time and place of the next HEL-LEX symposium will be officially announced in the not-too-distant future.

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.