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History of dictionaries falls short of own goals

Chasing the Sun
Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made
By Jonathon Green

Henry Holt and Company: 1996

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This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1996.

Boring. For half of "Chasing the Sun," British author Jonathon Green commits the ultimate sin for a writer – all the more inexcusable given the fascinating nature of the topic. And while the second half of his history of English-language dictionaries is an interesting read, it can't make up for the slow start.

Unless you're already interested in dictionaries, this book isn't the kind of grabber that will hold your interest.

The main problem is that Green seems unable to make up his mind whether he wanted to write this book for popular audiences or a scholarly crowd. No surprise that his book won't satisfy either. The academic researcher will be disappointed by the materials Green admits to skipping over (although the bibliography seems pretty deep, and would serve as an able guidepost to anyone desiring more information on English dictionaries). The lay reader (i.e., non-lexicographer, non-librarian, non-philologist) is likely to be both overwhelmed and bored by much of Green's in-depth explanation of details and nuance, especially in the early going.

Ultimately Green, a British lexicographer of slang and jargon, skips over too much history to be truly academic and includes far too much information to be a light read for the masses. It seems that he was trying to achieve the kind of heavy-popular tone that Daniel J. Boorstin found with his two best-selling history books, "The Discoverers" and "The Creators," but Green gets too bogged down in detail to pull it off.

In fact, Green takes a furnivalian delight in tracing some truly obscure details of lexicographical history – yet admits to not including certain dictionaries or related works he feels are unimportant. (And of course, now you, the reader, are scrambling around the house trying to find a competent biographical dictionary to learn who the hell Furnival was and just what a "furnivalian" delight might be; that's the risk, and one of the better rewards, of reading Green's book, though – you're repeatedly driven to one dictionary or another in search of some obscure Latin phrase or forgotten English word.)

It takes him 250 pages to get from ancient Sumer to Samuel Johnson. Much of that is spent on the early Latin dictionaries, and the first efforts to provide translation tables from Latin to English, and later vice versa. It may be fascinating history, but Green – in stereotypical British history style – gets so caught up in the minutiae that the reader loses the forest for the trees.

But starting with the chapter on Johnson, the book picks up immensely in both pace and its ability to hold your interest. Here is where the modern battles over language begin – Johnson, Noah Webster, and finally the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as their respective detractors. Green also spends considerable time detailing contemporary debates over the role of a dictionary – road map or etiquette guide?

The book closes out with Green's skeptical look at the claims of the dour P.C. movement regarding sexism and racism in modern dictionaries. (Green wonderfully describes the forces of political correctness thus: "Neither irony, humor nor self-knowledge penetrate that carapace of self-satisfaction.")

Given the current politically polarized atmosphere in which historians both right and left try to slant history to favor their own political bent, Green's is a remarkably nonpartisan book. He is as equally harsh in his assessment of conservatives Webster and Johnson as he is with contemporary thought police from the leftwing P.C. movement.

And in an argument that journalists everywhere should note, Green points out that while no one of us can escape completely our own prejudices and assumptions, at least attempting to do so is the first obligation of any historian – even while acknowledging the truth that much of the joy and beauty of history is provided by the authors' biases.

In any case, Green has no use for those – right or left – who would leave (or have left) words out of the dictionary for censorious reasons (as opposed to mere incompetence or realistic resource constraints). A dictionary maker, he argues, has an obligation to try to capture as much as possible of a language at any particular time. Thus, Christian efforts to excise obscenities get the same disapproval as feminist efforts to remove supposedly sexist vocabulary.

"Chasing the Sun" also comes across as somewhat disorganized. One example: While Green repeatedly visits the topic of etymology and its development, he never really lays out what etymology is (the study of the sources of words) or how it came to be more accurate than in earlier dictionaries. A little confusing there.

Another weakness of "Chasing the Sun" is its focus on English-language dictionaries. While early Latin, Greek and, as mentioned, Sumerian works are mentioned, once the Latin-English (and then English-Latin) word lists come on the scene, for the most part the rest of Europe is forgotten (except for use in passing comparison to their English-language competitors, whether British, American or Australian).

A larger sin given the book's subtitle ("Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made") is that the Eastern languages are ignored completely, except Sanskrit in passing as it related to several British lexicographers who had also studied Sanskrit while in India. But to ignore China, one of the greatest cultures of history, is mind-boggling. A book this broad in scope should have at least visited the East, and explained why the Chinese and Japanese languages are different from their Western counterparts and why the missing comparisons would have been invalid (if indeed that is the case).

Despite the inordinate amount of time spent above detailing a rather lengthy list of complaints against "Chasing the Sun," this is not a bad book. The disappointment springs from all the book could have been. As an established lexicographer, Green could have – and at times seems to promise to – presented a truly comprehensive examination of efforts to capture language on paper.

"Chasing" isn't that. It does, however, offer a solid, if sometimes slow, look at the personalities who have shaped our still-competing ideas of what a dictionary should be, as well as offering a broad overview of the issues surrounding dictionaries.