Saturday, March 24, 2007

Book Review: "Chasing the Sun"

[Note: This is the first of a series of books I'll be reading in the next few weeks on lexicography and lexicographers, which will culminate in a sort of annotated report for a class. I'll review each separately here, but may have some final thoughts on the series later on].

Jonathon Green's 1996 book Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made is a wide-ranging and copious study of lexicographical pursuits from the Sumerian-Akkadian word lists of the second millenium BC through the contemporary period. It focuses almost exclusively on English-language sources after the sixteenth century or so (when the trend away from Latin began), but the author can hardly be faulted for this.

A scholarly treatment of the evolution of both the theory and practice of dictionary-making, Green's work is "not an academic history" (as he puts it in the preface) only in the sense that it is free of specialized philological jargon and readable by the lexicographical layman. It is not in any sense "popular history" in the sense that the term is currently used. Accessible, indeed, but hardly a breezy beach read.

Green leads the reader through the various stages of lexicographical development, and includes significant background on the debates which continue to occupy today's 'arbiters of language' - what words should be included? why, or why not? what is the lexicographer's proper role: documenter, or decider? Longstanding issues all, and none decided yet.

Chasing the Sun's most notable feature is its short biographical sketches of the great lexicographers of history, from those whose influence is quite forgotten today to those who at least many would recognize as having something to do with dictionaries (Johnson, Webster, Murray, e.g.). As I mentioned, the central focus for much of the work is England, but Green crosses the pond for two worthy chapters on American lexicography and the Webster-Worcester wars of the mid-19th century. Unfortunately (probably a function of some publisher-imposed page limit) Green's lengthy treatment of early efforts forces him to give short shrift to the OED, today's gold standard.

Of particular interest to Green is slang, to which he devotes two chapters here (practically if not particularly imaginatively named Slang I and Slang II), and which has been the subject of his other books. This was a good addition here; it complemented the rest of the work quite well.

Chasing the Sun concludes with Green's thoughts on the overall role of the lexicographer, which he sees as "to reflect the language, which in turn is a reflection of the culture in which it exists." He discourages censorship, noting "If the culture in part is racist, sexist, and in other was politically incorrect, then so too much the dictionaries be. The best they can offer is some parenthetical declaration that a given word or phrase, in a given defintion or usage, is so." And he points out that objective lexicography is oxymoronic; "to abandon all humanity, to achieve some Platonic perfection of an entirely disinterested dictionary is impossible."

A fine, deeply-considered work, and well worth the time it takes to read. Better and more useful footnotes would have been welcomed, but we'll take what we can get.