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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.

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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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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