An enjoyable OUPblog post by Elizabeth Knowles, a historical lexicographer and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, on how “dictionary projects can famously, and sometimes fatally, overrun”:
In the nineteenth century especially, dictionaries for the more recondite foreign languages of past and present (from Coptic to Sanskrit) were compiled by independent scholars, enthusiasts who were ready to dedicate their lives to a particular project. This may make for an exhaustively comprehensive text; it doesn’t make life easy for a publisher who needs to know when the book is going to be finished. And from the compiler’s point of view, it’s equally difficult. The passion needed to keep you going alone in the study with your pages of manuscript, is also what makes hard to recognize when it’s time to move on to the next entry. (The etymologist W. W. Skeat, who made it a personal rule not to spend more than three hours on one word, is a shining exception.)
The clergyman and scholar Robert Payne Smith’s Syriac Lexicon was signed up in 1859. Peter Sutcliffe in his “Informal History” of Oxford University Press says that it was “thirty-three years in the press and the death of thirty-one compositors,” although it’s not clear quite how the second part of this calculation was made. The files show a number of attempts by the publishers either to rein the dictionary in, or speed up the editor. In 1871, the Delegates came up with a version of performance-related pay, with £50 to be paid on the annual publication of each fascicle. The original files show that “if possible” had been entered and then crossed out—presumably someone had a well-founded scepticism as to any positive effect.
Visit the link for a dramatic photo labeled “large press camera, late nineteenth century” and the story of Lieutenant A. Mears and his 1896 proposal for “A Russian-English and English-Russian Military Vocabulary” (not accepted); in other Syriac news, Turkmen, Syriac and Asuri have been added to the official languages of Iraq. (Thanks for the links, Paul!)