Academic journal article Scottish Language

The Thistle and the Words: Scotland in Late Modern English Lexicography

Academic journal article Scottish Language

The Thistle and the Words: Scotland in Late Modern English Lexicography

Article excerpt


On 21 October 1773 Robert Fergusson published a satirical poem in the Weekly Magazine with the title 'To Dr Samuel Johnson: Food for a new Edition of his Dictionary' (Boulton 1974/1995: 231-233; Brown 2012: 214-216): in it Fergusson adopted a mock-Augustan style, rich in nonce formations like Scoticanian, Loch-lomondian and usquebalian, imitating what had immediately been perceived as a characteristic of Samuel Johnson's heavily Latinate prose. Nor was this the only reason for Johnson's bad publicity in Scotland, as is well-known; however, even there his work was to prove crucial in many respects.

Starting from the entries in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755), this contribution aims to highlight the main ways in which Scots vocabulary was recorded and discussed in Late Modern dictionaries at a time when a new interest in overseas expansion was developing. In particular, I intend to focus on the image of Scottish culture that was outlined for the envisaged readership, and assess the ways in which this related to other nineteenth-century representations of Scotland, at a time when both emigration and colonial expansion opened up new windows onto distant countries, while Scotland itself was reassessed as an 'exotic' territory.

Within this framework, my study will take into consideration three other landmarks in Late Modern English lexicography: Jamieson's An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), and Murray's New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1884-, now the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED). In addition, I intend to discuss other materials, such as diaries, travelogues and correspondence, in order to assess what terms were typically selected to discuss the relationship between 'the old country' and 'the new world'. Such personal documents, together with the lexicographical ones, may provide a useful backdrop against which to outline the main lexical strategies employed to construe a new 'imperial', or in fact an 'independent', identity both at home and abroad.

In Late Modern times linguistic issues were constantly in the foreground. In particular, in nineteenth-century Scotland the idea that Scots was dwindling still had wide circulation, and while literary uses continued to be supported and appreciated, in daily interaction Scots was forcefully discouraged. Popular usage manuals singled out 'provincial' forms to avoid, and scholars only highlighted geographical specificity when it could be related to antiquity and supposedly greater purity (Dossena 2006). Such attitudes traced their roots back to the eighteenth century, around the time when Johnson's Dictionary was published in 1755. On the other hand, the specificity of Scottish culture and scenery made it a useful basis for the construction of an idealized territory of the sublime, where history and tradition could provide a framework for the creation of both familiar yet exotic identities. Particularly in the Scottish diaspora of the nineteenth century, the traits that both literary and non-literary works had highlighted would become the focus of several texts aiming to reconstruct an image of the past that could relate to the new and current one (see Dossena 2012a). In what follows the link between Johnson's Dictionary and this new image will be investigated, concentrating on a selection of lexical items that can be assumed to have acquired iconic status in the idealized representation of Scotland that gained momentum in Victorian times.


Despite the rather fierce critics that Johnson's Dictionary encountered in Scotland, its role in presenting an image of Scottish culture beyond prescriptive dicta and actually influencing later materials is well-worth analyzing. First of all, in Johnson's work about 200 'Scottish' items are specifically indicated (Dossena 2004), although dialectal variation is not discussed in his Plan of a Dictionary (1747) or in the Preface. …

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