Before Dictionaries, Teachers Could Not Mark Students as Just Wrong on Their Spelling

By Faktorovich, Anna | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

Before Dictionaries, Teachers Could Not Mark Students as Just Wrong on Their Spelling


Faktorovich, Anna, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


Before Dictionaries, Teachers Could Not Mark Students as Just Wrong on Their Spelling Simon Winchester. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. $14.95. 298pp, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-19881439-9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

The front matter of this book is highly engaging as I have spent a few minutes reading it before I could pull away to begin writing. While I was searching for a specific date when the Oxford English Dictionary was first put together, I learned about the various types of international dictionaries that have defined their times in the background. This curious conclusion stands out: "neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day-Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Jonson-had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that was first noticed by name in the late 15th century", but only appeared as a book in 1538, "a dictionary ', edited by Sir Thomas Elyot (20). I have been thinking about problems related to this because many attribution studies question if "Shakespeare's" authorial signature can be deduced from spellings such as "them ' versus " 'em or the utilization of strange words that "Shakespeare" invented or that do not appear in texts from this period by other authors. The reason Renaissance literature is particularly difficult for modern readers to comprehend is because of its spelling irregularities and strange varieties of meanings applied even to the same words. This irregularity persisted in part for at least a century beyond "Shakespeare's" time as the debate was renewed by the authors in the "Daniel Defoe" circle, who argued for a language Academy like the one in France to police the language and keep it regulated and standard. They did not win this battle and there are still many irregular oddities in the English language. But the battle over the "dictionary" was won, and this tool allows modern writers to be able to figure out precisely what literary critics are saying. It is difficult to comprehend some "post-structuralism" or "formalist" theories because critics in these fields attempt to cloud the readers' attention by the utilization of an extraordinary quantity of rare words, but if one looks up every one of them, the nonsense can be fully deciphered thanks to the precision and consistency of modern dictionaries. In other words, the study presented here of this particular dictionary really covers in part all of these sub-questions of authorship, individuality, and standardization.

Since I agree the construction of this dictionary was a grand endeavor, I don't think it's hyperbolic to commence this book's blurb thus: "'The greatest enterprise of its kind in history,' was the verdict of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin in June 1928 when The Oxford English Dictionary was finally published. …

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