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Shakespearean dictionaries: A corpus-based approach to the word ‘horrid’

Watch Jonathan Culpeper elaborate on what a corpus-based Shakespeare dictionary is like, taking the word "horrid" as his main illustration.
In this video talk, we get down to the nitty gritty of what a corpus-based Shakespeare dictionary would do in order to establish the meanings of words. We’ll start with the present day meaning of the word “horrid.” Here, in the first half of this slide, is a short list of examples taken from the British National corpus, a huge corpus of British English from the early 1990s. I have highlighted the actual occurrences of the word “horrid.” What you were looking at is a concordance, a list of instances of the word displayed so that you can see their immediate linguistic contexts, and presented one after another, line by line.
Scan through these examples and see if you can get a sense of what the word means. Pause the video if you need to. What seems to be particularly important in understanding the meaning of “horrid” is to get a sense of what it is describing as horrid. Using the British National corpus again, in the second half of this slide, I have supplied the top 30, rank-ordered, most frequently occurring nouns within five words to the right of the word “horrid.” Pause the video to give yourself time to read this. Though there are many insights possible here, I will provide you with just one.
Note that the word “man” is the second most frequent, and later we have “girls” and “child” but no women or women, or lady or ladies. Interesting. Actually, in this list of nouns, there are two or three cases that are very reminiscent of Shakespearean usages. And perhaps you can spot them. But there are also cases that clearly reflect today’s British culture. Note the one on double-glazing. Let’s have a look at how the word “horrid” is defined in the corpus-based Collins Cobuild Dictionary. “Horrid, a rather informal word.” Clearly, they had examined linguistic context and concluded that there was a very strong pattern of occurrence in informal contexts.
The first sense is quote, “Something that is horrid is very unpleasant indeed, “ close quote. The second sense is similar but regarding people. Open quote, “Someone who is horrid behaves in a very unpleasant, nasty way towards other people,” close quote. The basis of these definitions is the kind of example we saw in the British National corpus. Let’s now move towards the usage of “horrid” in Shakespeare. And we’re going to do this by first considering the approach a philologist would take. Here is the entry for “horrid” in the Oxford English Dictionary. In the first line, we have the head word and various bits of information about pronunciation and grammar and variant spellings.
In the second line, we discover that the word “horrid” is borrowed from Latin “horridus,” which means meant bristling, rough, shaggy and various related meanings. Note that the dictionary starts with etymological information. It takes a historical approach. The first sense given in the dictionary, which you see in blue, is, open quote, “bristling, shaggy, rough,” close quote. This of course, is exactly the same as the original Latin sense. The entry is organised so that the historically earliest sense goes first. Below this sense, you see the citations 1590 Spenser, 1621 Burton. The sense was clearly still current in Shakespeare’s time. Let’s move to the second sense. Open quote, “Causing horror or aversion; revolting to sight, hearing, or contemplation; terrible, tragic, frightful; abominable, detestable.”
There is almost certainly a connection between this sense and the previous one. If you get frightened, your hair stands on end, it bristles. Fear has a kind of metanymic relationship with bristling hair. The OED is capturing this historical development. Shakespeare dictionaries typically concur with this sense. Crystal and Crystal, for example, define horrid as quote, “horrifying, frightful, terrifying,” close quote. Noting, in particular, the source of this sense, the quotation is from Shakespeare. Open quote, “I will meditate the while on some horrid message for a challenge,” close quote. Shakespeare’s works provide more evidence and quotations for meanings in the OED than any other writer.
This is not surprising given his fame and the prolific amount he wrote, but it does produce a significant problem in understanding the meanings of Shakespeare’s words, and that is circularity. Shakespeare is defined by Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare was not speaking his very own language at the time. All his uses are based on, and creatively exploiting, the meaning conventions of the English of the time. We need to look at Shakespeare’s language in relation to those. Let’s look at the concordance of the examples in Shakespeare’s plays. In a following video talk, we will show you how you can automatically generate such concordances for yourself. “Horrid” is not a frequently occurring word, and so this is all of the examples.
To help you tease out the meanings, I have highlighted the word “horrid” in bold and underlined the noun to which it refers. Some examples make it starkly clear that “horrid” has something to do with fear. The example five down reads, “With fear and horrid flight, “ but there is more going on here than that. Note that many examples involve extreme or unnatural events or supernatural events. Quote, “Appear in forms more horrid.” “Cleave the general ear with horrid speech.” “Horrid sights.” “Legions of horrid hell.” “All the sparks of nature to quit this horrid act.” “Such bursts of horrid thunder,” and so on. So with all this in mind, let’s begin to construct the beginnings of a contextualised dictionary entry.
Horrid, an adjective. Something that is horrid evokes fear. Regularly describes supernatural or unnatural acts, sights and sounds. That captures how Shakespeare is using the word in his plays. Now, you may be wondering whether other writers at that time used the word the same way. I looked at a randomised concordance of examples from our EEBO-TCP corpus, the one I described in an earlier video talk. Exactly the same pattern can be seen here. OK. So knowing about this use and meaning of the word “horrid” is not going to revolutionise how you see Shakespeare’s language, but the point of it was to illustrate the method. The philological approach is geared towards tracing the historical development of senses.
The corpus-based approach is geared towards teasing out meanings that are displayed in the actual usage of a word. One problem with “horrid,” however, is that it doesn’t occur often enough to reveal complex patterns. Let’s turn to a more frequent word in our next talk.

How can we extract patterns of language use that reveal word-meanings? And what patterns exactly are we talking about?

In some ways, corpus-based techniques probing word-meanings are like word association games, except that we are not guessing about the word associations but providing empirical evidence for them.

This video uses the word “horrid” to illustrate those techniques. We look at a “concordance”, a list of instances of a word extracted from a corpus so that you can see their immediate linguistic contexts presented line by line. This simple technique reveals the associations of a word. In this way, we show how the word “horrid” has particular associations today that it did not in Shakespeare’s time. We contrast our observations with what it says about “horrid” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), where we also find Shakespeare listed. Our corpus-based technique reveals more subtleties In the interpretation of “horrid” in Shakespeare than we find suggested in the OED.

If you have any questions about this technique so far, put them in the comments, otherwise move on to the next example in the following video.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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