Exploring the English language
Exploring the English language

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Exploring the English language

3 Lexicography and etymology

Robert Cawdrey's (1604) dictionary is actually called A Table Alphabetical of Hard Usual English Words. It provides some early illustrations describing use of the English language.

As this interest in describing (and prescribing) use of the English language developed, so did lexicography, the craft of making dictionaries.

In Activity 9 you will look at an extract from Blackadder III which makes fun of the part of a lexicographer's task that might be to do with capturing neologisms, or newly minted words.

Activity 9

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Watch the extract from the comedy programme Blackadder III by clicking on the video clip below. Recalling Section 3.5 from ‘Modernity and English as a national language’, how did Samuel Johnson actually avoid the problem of being continually confronted by new words?

‘An A to Z of English’ – Samuel Johnson extract (sketch from Blackadder III) (1 minute)

Download this video clip.Video player: ‘An A to Z of English’ – Samuel Johnson extract (sketch from Blackadder III) (1 minute)
Skip transcript: ‘An A to Z of English’ – Samuel Johnson extract (sketch from Blackadder III) (1 minute)

Transcript: ‘An A to Z of English’ – Samuel Johnson extract (sketch from Blackadder III) (1 minute)

SAMUEL JOHNSON
Here it is Sir, the very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, Sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
EDMUND BLACKADDER
Every single one, Sir?
JOHNSON
Every single one, Sir.
BLACKADDER
Well in that case, Sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafibularities.
[laughter]
JOHNSON
What?
BLACKADDER
Contrafibularities, Sir, it is a common word down our way.
JOHNSON
Damn.
BLACKADDER
Oh, I’m sorry Sir, I’m anaspectic, frasmotic, even compunctious to have caused you such pericombobulations.
PRINCE REGENT
What are you on about Blackadder, this is all beginning to sound a bit like dago talk to me.
BLACKADDER
I’m sorry, Sir, I merely wished to congratulate the Doctor on not having left out a single word. Shall I fetch the tea your Highness?
PRINCE REGENT
Yes, yes and get that damn fire up here will you.
BLACKADDER
Certainly Sir. I shall return interfrastically.
[laughter]
End transcript: ‘An A to Z of English’ – Samuel Johnson extract (sketch from Blackadder III) (1 minute)
‘An A to Z of English’ – Samuel Johnson extract (sketch from Blackadder III) (1 minute)
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Discussion

Samuel Johnson set out to collect only words that were well established in the English language.

Even if lexicographers decide only to deal with words long established in the language, they are still faced with many problems about defining meanings.

Activity 10

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Without looking in a dictionary, or spending more than three minutes thinking about it, define the word category.

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Discussion

One brief response to this question would be – category: ‘classified type’. Now let's see what some lexicographers made of the word.

  • Cawdrey defined category as ‘an accusation’ so clearly the meaning of the word has changed over the centuries. He added the information that the word derived from Greek.

  • In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson (1756) gave four definitions as follows: ‘a class; a rank; an order of ideas; predicament’. He also gave the Greek word from which he suggested the word originated and the name of an established author who used the word category. The first three meanings seem contemporary but the last is surprising, possibly related to Cawdrey's but not necessarily so. Perhaps we can find a clue as to meaning changes in the word's etymology, that is, its origins and development.

Take a dictionary, either one you have to hand or can find online, and try to find any clues to explain the changing meanings of the word category as illustrated above.

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