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Shakespearean dictionaries: Dictionary traditions and general Shakespeare dictionaries

Watch Jonathan Culpeper elaborate on dictionary traditions and the nature of general Shakespeare dictionaries.
What is the first thing that you do when you don’t understand a word in a Shakespearean text? Well, you could ask a tutor or teacher, but they might not be available, and in some cases, they might not be too sure, themselves. The solution for most people, I suspect, is to check it out in a dictionary, and usually that means a dictionary designed to help people understand word meanings in Shakespeare. The central role of these dictionaries is why we are talking about them in this series of three video talks. In addition, they usefully raise the issue of how to uncover word meanings.
In this video talk, we will focus on two dictionary making traditions, the philological tradition and the much more recent corpus-based tradition. Knowing about these traditions in the making of dictionaries of all kinds will help us understand the nature of general Shakespeare dictionaries. By general, here, I mean dictionaries which are not targeting a specialist subset of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, such as his legal vocabulary, religious vocabulary, sexual, and so on. To understand the background to some general dictionaries of Shakespeare’s language, it is useful to understand the philological tradition. The best example, bar none, of a philological dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary finally published in 1928.
The Oxford English Dictionary, or OED for short, was the product of the Philological Society founded in 1842. In order, quote, “To investigate and promote study and knowledge of the structure, the affinities, and the history of languages,” close quote. The term philology refers to the study of languages, and above all, their history. The historical emphasis can be seen in the preface of the OED. Quote, “The present work aims at exhibiting the history and signification of the English words now in use or known to have been in use since the middle of the 12th century,” close quote. The OED was to become the best historical dictionary in the world. James Murray was appointed as full-time editor in 1879.
You can see a picture of him standing in his scriptorium. The scriptorium was a building constructed to house the 5 million quotations that provide the foundation of the OED. When readers from all over the world encountered a usage of a particular word, they wrote it down and sent it to the OED where it was logged in the scriptorium. This technique was actually building on a tradition started by Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. Entries in the dictionary were built on actual cases of use. From 1888 to 1914, three further editors were appointed, Henry Bradley, WA Craigie and CT Onions.
For us, the most important of these is CT Onions because CT Onions also produced one of the most famous general dictionaries of Shakespeare’s language. So what is a corpus-based dictionary, and how does that compare with the philological tradition? Well, this is a relatively recent tradition. The key work here was published in 1987. It was the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, the first dictionary that was fully corpus based. The general editor and chief of the dictionary was the linguist John Sinclair. In the introduction, he states, “This dictionary is based on hard measurable evidence. No major uses are missed and the number of times a use occurs has a strong influence on the way the entries are organised.”
To be precise, the entries were based on patterns of usage in a vast corpus of 220 million words. Now, you may be thinking that the OED is also based on hard evidence, even if it was smaller, but there is a key difference here. Evidence was collected by readers and submitted to Murray and colleagues. It doesn’t come from a single data set that can be verified and further examined, and the whole process is highly subject to human vagaries. In contrast, the corpus offers a data set that can be systematically explored. One can say, for example, with certainty that something occurs more than something else because one has the complete data set, but Murray could never do this.
In constructing the entries, Sinclair and his team partly relied on the examination of co-occuring words, that is, collocates. We briefly mentioned those in an earlier talk, and we will be looking in more detail at these later. With regard to general Shakespeare dictionaries, what is out there and what are they like? There is certainly quite a range out there from Foster in 1908 through to Crystal and Crystal in 2002. It might be worth noting that, although I’m referring to these as general as opposed to specialist dictionaries, none of them aim to be fully comprehensive. Most focus on words that are presumed to be hard or difficult for the reader. Not all of them described themselves as dictionaries.
We also see glossary, lexicon, word book, and more. They have various contents. By way of linguistic information, they typically list the word concerned, its grammatical part of speech, supply a brief definition, and also some illustrative quotations. This much one would expect of dictionaries. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, some Shakespearean “dictionaries,” quote, and they use that label, comprise non-linguistic information such as play summaries, character descriptions, cultural information, and biographical information. And finally, we should mention Shakespeare concordances. Of course, they are not dictionaries, but it’s useful to acknowledge that they contain a source of information none of the other works contain, namely, a comprehensive index of all words, the frequency of words, and more besides.
One of the reasons I’m elaborating on the kinds of information general Shakespeare dictionaries contain is because there is a sense in which a corpus-based dictionary will combine linguistic information and frequency information. In fact, the encyclopaedia we are producing in the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language project aims to combine all of these kinds of information over its volumes. In this video talk, we have considered two dictionary making traditions, philological and corpus based. We have looked at general Shakespeare dictionaries. None of these are fully corpus based. They all follow the Oxford English Dictionary, at least to an extent. In the following two talks, I use examples to illustrate what a corpus-based Shakespeare dictionary is like.

Shakespeare dictionaries, like all dictionaries, play a key role in helping us understand word meanings in Shakespeare. There are dictionaries that focus on specialist subsets of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, such as his legal or sexual vocabulary.

Our focus here will be general Shakespeare dictionaries. Not all dictionaries are created equal. To understand the nature of general Shakespeare dictionaries, one needs to understand the traditions that have shaped dictionaries of the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the premier historical dictionary. It is important to mention the OED because one of its editors, C.T. Onions, produced one of the most famous dictionaries (“glossary” to be precise) of Shakespeare’s language.

The OED reflects the philological tradition; it focuses on the history of words. This is the key feature behind the organisation of entries and the thinking about word meanings, as we will illustrate in the following video-talk. In contrast with the philological tradition of dictionary making, we have the corpus-based tradition, which really began with John Sinclair’s Cobuild English Language Dictionary of 1987. Words are underpinned by evidence, extracted from a corpus, about the ways in which a word patterns.

Currently, there is no corpus-based Shakespeare dictionary. But the methods we will introduce later this week and next are to enable you to try out precisely what is needed for a corpus based dictionary of Shakespeare (something which the Encyclopedia Shakespeare’s Language project is currently producing).

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare dictionary? What makes a good dictionary? Put your thoughts in the comments.

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