CHASING THE SUN by Jonathon Green


Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made
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 Everything we could want to know, and more, about the long history of dictionary writing. Green is Britain's top slang dictionary writer, so this isn't a dry study of lexicography. If it is overly long, it is because we are given too much gossip about dueling definers, sniping censors, and petty etymologists. Before they were self-declared guardians of culture with powdered wigs, compilers of glossaries wanted to teach the necessary foreign terms for trading with and ruling over neighboring friends and foes. Green credits the Sumerians with the first such lexicons, and for many centuries dictionaries offered polyglot vocabularies for merchants and artisans. (Calepin's 11- language dictionary would be the standard until the 1500s.) There was no French-English vernacular dictionary until a royal intermarriage in 1514 made it necessary. The first Italian-English lexicon is seen as surpassing this achievement because many slang and obscene terms were included among the 46,000 headwords. Among the great lexicographers, Green is unhappy with Samuel Johnson's conservatism, criticizing him with pronouncements like: ``For all Johnson's achievements, his work is ultimately backward-looking.'' Green considers Noah Webster to be an insufferable prude. Biblically oriented Webster couldn't omit ``sodomy,'' but he defined it merely as ``a crime against nature.'' We also read about a statewide ban on ``obscene'' dictionaries in Texas. It can be fun reading about the ``F'' word but less so the great fuss made about the inelegance of words like ``lengthy.'' But ironically, for all his criticism of Dr. Johnson's conservatism, Green is guilty of defending anachronistic 19th-century German theories of etymology that have themselves been supplanted by new evidence of the monogenesis of world language. What might have been a lively book on hot cultural issues gets bogged down in lexicographers' name-calling and shop talk. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-3466-8
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1996