Early English Dictionaries and the History of Meekness

By Bailey, Merridee L. | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Early English Dictionaries and the History of Meekness


Bailey, Merridee L., Philological Quarterly


MEEKNESS MAY STRIKE READERS as an unusual topic on which to write an article on lexicography. Very little attention is paid to the history of meekness. Religious scholars and some philosophers have explored meekness's theological foundations and role in moral theory but they have paid little attention to how well integrated the concept of meekness was in medieval and early modern English society. (1) Alternatively, Jennifer Clements study of humility argues humility was essential to early modern English society, hierarchy, and religious belief, but she does not delve into long historical shifts over the medieval to modern period. She has also suggested that meekness lacked humility's foundational importance to early modern virtue, arguing meekness related to interpersonal relationships rather than a relationship to God. (2) But, meekness was put to use in English religious, social, and political texts to make important points about the exercise of power, behavior, obedience, restraint, submission to oppression, lack of pride, and gentleness.

Understanding the full weight of meekness's cultural value requires examining a wide corpus of material across genres, looking at uses of the term in their context to understand common usage. But understanding meekness's historical value also requires attention to the definitions provided for "meek" and its derivatives by lexicographers and protolexicographers compiling contemporary dictionaries. While many linguists would say that dictionaries are too self-conscious to be records of common usage they nevertheless provide insight into how educated writers--principally grammarians, scholars, and lexicographers--historically set out what they saw as a word's correct meaning. (3) For a polysemous word like "meek," which has possible multiple senses and was widely used across genres to denote meanings that were different although still related, the contemporary attempts to define the meaning of "meek" and to determine its semantic affinity with other words open up one strand of the word's lexical history.

A focused study of meekness's definitions in dictionaries reveals how contemporary scholars categorized and defined meekness, and informs the wider question of how meekness was comprehended at a popular level. This article takes examples from the earliest bilingual English-Latin and Latin-English vocabularies, early bilingual and multilingual dictionaries, later monolingual English dictionaries, and "hard word" dictionaries to show continuities and changes in the semantic space "meekness" occupied and its relationship to other related words and meanings. This is particularly relevant to understanding the relationship between meekness and social and religious norms over the late Middle Ages and into the early modern period. (4) To explore the wider understanding and reception of meek behavior across the period one would need to study "meek" words across genres, a task which is beyond the scope of this article. However, this would no doubt be valuable as it could tease out the culturally specific reasons behind the semantic associations of "meek" words with other virtue-words, religious norms, and behavioral terms. At various places in this article I identify where this type of expanded study is possible and introduce where we might look for evidence outside of dictionaries about meekness's qualities. (5)

Evidence from historical wordbooks reveals that meekness had a strong semantic affinity with softness and mildness, positive Christian traits, forms of obedience, behavior which allowed agency and determination, manners of social interaction, and characteristics performed by someone. By comparing associations over time and across lexicons we see certain recurring properties within the semantic associations of "meek" words. This includes the ongoing physical and figurative meanings of "softness" and "mildness," and meekness as either a manner of action or a passive state, for example, the absence of anger or of any other extreme state. …

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