Magazine article The American Conservative

If Google Were a Book

Magazine article The American Conservative

If Google Were a Book

Article excerpt

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, Jack Lynch, Bloomsbury Press, 464 pages

Jack Lynch, a polymathic professor of English who specializes in 18th-century literature and the history of the English language at Rutgers, is author of such earlier works as The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park and Samuel Johnson's Insults: A Compendium of Snubs, Sneers, Slights, and Effronteries from the Eighteenth-Century Master.

You Could Look It Up--another large, exuberant volume from a man who loves books (that includes scrolls, tablets, pillars, parchment, manuscripts, the codex), language, libraries, history--is intended as "both a history and a love letter to the great dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases." But it may also, he fears, be "something of a eulogy: we may be approaching the end of the era of the reference book."

From among reference works ranging from The Code of Hammurabi to Pliny's Natural History, from The Domesday Book to Dr. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language to The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, from The Guinness Book of Records to Schott's Original Miscellany (a reference book for which "the word 'quirky' was invented"), and ending with a discussion of Google and Wikipedia (the "googluvian era"), Professor Lynch chooses 50 works exemplifying "the encyclopedic dream" of "collecting all the world's knowledge in one place"--a goal that has existed "for as long as there has been writing."

The 50 works are organized into two per chapter, 25 chapters inter-spliced with half-chapters on loosely related subjects. Chapter 10, for instance, deals with the production of two great dictionaries, the Dictionnaire de I'Academie francaise, 1694; and Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755.

Lynch calls the French Academy's product "the most important academic dictionary of all time" produced by "the greatest of the national academies then and now." In contrast, England had no academy and its first real national dictionary would be produced by one man, a journalist and scholar known to only a few, "a gawky bundle of nervous tics who twitched and spat as he talked."

Yet the choice was inspired. "His memory was prodigious, and few could match his reading." He promised to produce a dictionary rivaling that of the French academy in three years. "Disbelievers scoffed: forty scholars had needed forty years to produce the Dictionnaire." Dr. Johnson's riposte: "This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."

"He did, in fact, miss his deadline," writes Professor Lynch. "From contract to publication took not three years but nine--still an impressive proportion next to the sixteen hundred man-years the French had taken."

Chapter 10 1/2, "Of Ghosts and Mountweazels," opens with a reference to Dr. Johnson that leads into a discussion of fakes and mistakes. If you look up the word "froupe" in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, you'll find it means "To dive with a sudden impetuosity. A word out of use." But more than that, it's a word that never existed. Dr. Johnson, having misread the word "soupe," meaning to swoop, created a new word.

Such instances of "ghost words," says Lynch, "abound in dictionaries." And they are not always accidental. "Some incorrect entries are intentional ... The German Brockhaus Enyzykopadie has a tradition of including one prank entry in every edition."

And in 1975, the New Columbia Encyclopedia included a long entry on the distinguished American fountain designer Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, celebrated author of Flag's Up, a collection of photographs of rural mailboxes. Tragically, Ms. Mountweazel's life would come to a premature end, cut short in an explosion while researching an article for Combustibles magazine. …

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