I can’t believe I’ve never reported on this massive lexicographical project before, but such appears to be the case. Happily, Byrd Pinkerton has done an NPR piece that gives me a chance to remedy the omission:
On the second floor of an old Bavarian palace in Munich, Germany, there’s a library with high ceilings, a distinctly bookish smell and one of the world’s most extensive collections of Latin texts. About 20 researchers from all over the world work in small offices around the room.
They’re laboring on a comprehensive Latin dictionary that’s been in progress since 1894. The most recently published volume contained all the words beginning with the letter P. That was back in 2010.
And they’re not as far along as that may lead you to believe. They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they’ve had to go back to that one. They’re also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade.
The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was one of many big, scholarly projects taken on by the German government in the late 19th century.
Through two World Wars and German reunification, generations of Latin scholars have been chipping away at the same goal: documenting every use of every Latin word from the earliest Latin inscriptions in the 6th century BC up until around 200 AD, when it was in decline as a spoken language. Befitting the comprehensive nature of the project, the scholars will also include some words up to the 6th century AD.
That means poetry and history and speeches. But it also means every gravestone and street sign. It means architectural works, medical and legal texts, books about animals or cooking.
There’s a lot more about the history and techniques involved, as well as the people who work on it (and some great photos); I’ll just quote this one additional bit to explain a joke:
Her colleague, Nigel Holmes, a Thesaurus editor, wrote the article for nam, or “for.”
“I have sometimes joked that I still have nightmares from when I was in nam,” he admits. “But it was actually, it was easier than I thought.”
For those too young to remember, “Nam” (rhymes with “ham”) used to be a common way to refer to Vietnam (and the war America fought there), and “when I was in Nam” was a phrase you heard a lot.