Legacy Dictionaries Reloaded: Why Should We Bother? 

The closest I’ve ever come to glimpsing hell was several years ago, reading an article in the New York Times, entitled “Justices Turning More Frequently to Dictionary, and Not Just for Big Words.” The article cited the example of a certain Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. who had apparently parsed the meaning of a federal law by consulting the usual legal precedents (X vs Y) —  and no less than five dictionaries. One of the words he looked up was “of”. He discovered, lo and behold, that its meaning had something to do with belonging or possession.

Dictionaries lie at the core of the human ability to conceptualize, systematize and convey meaning. But they are hardly positivistic, objective repositories of knowledge or truth about language, let alone life.

Would you like to live in a world in which lexicographers — some of whom, we know for a fact, were documented lunatics — were responsible for providing evidence in court? I wouldn’t.

A strange beast

A dictionary is a strange, polyfunctional beast: it is a text, a tool, a model of language, and a cultural object deeply embedded in the historical moment of its production. That means that dictionaries, like any other texts, will inevitably reflect the cultural, political and ideological values of their times, no matter when and where they were written.

Just because Thomas Blount in 1661 described coffee (coffa or cauphe) as a “kind of drink among the Turks and Persians, which is black, thick and bitter” and which “expels  melancholy, purges choler” and “begets mirth” — doesn’t mean that I should win a class-action suit against Starbucks, whose white chocolate mocha, while “an excellent concoction,” regularly fails to rid me of my debilitating depression and misanthropic cynicism.

Historical, legacy dictionaries remain valuable to humanists precisely because they can be quirky, because they provide culturally shaded insights into the lexical knowledge of a particular epoch — often in stark contrast to contemporary attitudes or values. We study legacy dictionaries not because we need them for linguistic survival in a world of fauxhawks, twerking and jeggings, but because they have something important to teach us about language, about the people who wrote them and about the time in which they were written.

The digitization boom

The digitization boom that began in the mid-1990s dramatically altered the way we engage with immaterial cultural heritage; lexicographic heritage has been no exception. It is by now well-established that digitization can increase the use value of a historical dictionary, especially in global, networked environments. Many projects have been initiated to create electronic editions of printed lexicons, yet we as a community of scholars suffering from lexicophilia are still facing numerous technical, methodological and interpretative challenges.

The goal of this blog, which is a joint initiative of the Working Group “Retro-Digitized Dictionaries” of the European Network of e-Lexicography (ENeL) and Working Group “Lexical Resources” of the Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH), will be to address some of these challenges.

Ideally, this blog will become a living and breathing platform for sharing tips, raising questions and discussing methods and techniques of digitizing legacy dictionaries, including general workflow and procedural issues, user requirements, standards, text encoding and data modeling, data enrichment, networking and application development. We can learn a lot from each other’s success stories, but also from failures. We can also use this space to imagine future platforms for the exploration of lexicographic heritage beyond national or monocultural borders.

As a community effort, this blog will become successful only if the community finds an active interest in shaping its content and its direction. If, along the way, after many a cup of thick and bitter coffee, we manage to cure some ills of the heart, so much the better.

Featured image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by mango_sparrow


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Toma Tasovac

Toma Tasovac is the Director of the Belgrade Center for Digital Humanities. He likes to meddle into all sorts of things, mostly digital.

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