Thanks to the indefatigable aldiboronti (who should really set up shop as a linguablogger), my attention has been directed to a wonderful essay, “The Perils of Lexicography,” by Judith Robertson, an Australian lexicographer who takes the trouble to investigate the true origins of a number of purportedly Australian words:

I was recently examining Jonathon Green’s Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (1998). This work contains 70,000 words and phrases from a variety of English-speaking countries. In its Acknowledgements Green admits that ‘the profession of lexicography is, inevitably, a plagiaristic one, a linguistic Pacman that moves on, gobbling up its predecessors as it goes’. But there are very real dangers in this kind of plagiarism…
Cornelius Crowe’s Australian Slang Dictionary has been widely used by scholars researching Australian English. In spite of the book’s title, it obviously includes words that are not exclusively Australian. But what scholars have failed to realise is the fact that almost every entry in Crowe’s dictionary has been plagiarised from other dictionaries… Matsell’s Secret Language of Crime and the anonymous Slang Dictionary of New York are not well known in Australia. The entries in both American dictionaries are close to identical, and both dictionaries were produced for the New York Police. The 1997 reprint of the Slang Dictionary of New York describes the work as ‘the comprehensive dictionary to which novelists and historians turn to make the streets of 19th century America come alive’. Unfortunately, Cornelius Crowe turned to these American dictionaries to make the streets of nineteenth-century Australia come alive…
There is a very good lexicographical lesson to be learned from all this. Although it is common practice to use other dictionaries, and it makes sense to do so, the lexicographer who uses dictionaries without discretion is in great peril. And the lexicographer who uses only other dictionaries for evidence of the existence of a word is in greater peril.

Ouch! I’ve already emended the false entries in my copy of Cassell (a superb work otherwise), and I hope more lexicographers are doing the unglamorous but essential work of eliminating such fake words from reference works.


  1. Noetica says:

    Thanks for the alert, LH. And yes, the Cassell dictionary is generally an excellent work, to which I have frequent recourse.

  2. Steve, I have notified the Lexicography discussion list of this post of yours, url:
    Caveat emptor, eh?!

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