I knew little about Clarence Barnhart beyond his name (and that primarily as part of the collocation Thorndike-Barnhart), so I was considerably enlightened by Rulon-Miller Books’ sales catalog page for the Barnhart Dictionary Archive, with its full biography and history of his lexicographical work. My attention was grabbed by the first two paragraphs:

Clarence L. Barnhart was arguably the most talented of all American lexicographers working in the 20th century. Like many brilliant men, he was a figure of contrasts. He could be formidably charming; he could also be arrogant, opinionated, self-interested, a perfectionist, and difficult to work with. That the Barnhart dictionaries did not attain the name recognition granted by the general public to the likes of a Merriam-Webster or a Random House dictionary was due in part to Barnhart’s personality, but even more importantly to his desire to remain independent of corporate structures. Throughout his career he chose to make dictionaries as he conceived them rather than be dictated to, a choice which changed the face of American lexicography, but which denied him, perhaps, the wealth and fame he might otherwise have achieved. Due to the changed nature of dictionary-making in the 21st century (with the new focus on corpus work, and the technologies which allow for that focus), Clarence Barnhart is likely to have been the last independent lexicographer working with the English language as a whole. Interestingly, it was his work, his innovation and foresight, which paved the way for the changes which are now rendering the old ways obsolete.

Barnhart’s enduring friendship with the noted linguist Leonard Bloomfield must be recognized as one of the most important relationships in American education, as it was Barnhart who introduced Bloomfield’s theories to the dictionary world, and who subsequently merged modern linguistic theory with lexicography. The rise of modern linguistics fostered a scientific approach to the study of language in general, which resulted in better observation of both the oral and written language. Consequently, and largely due to Barnhart’s dogged pursuits, lexicography is now recognized as a subject field within linguistics itself.

I’m sure it’s overstated (it is, after all, part of a marketing pitch), but the relationship with Bloomfield by itself would be worth an article—he was, after all, the Great American Linguist before Chomsky came along and usurped the title. The page is well worth the read; thanks for the link, Michael!


  1. I remember very well those red-covered age-graded Thorndyke-Barnhardt dictionaries in the schools I attended. I feel quite nostalgic, and I wonder what I’d think today if I read one.

  2. “he was, after all, the Great American Linguist before Chomsky came along and usurped the title. ”
    Sh-DAMN! “Usurped” Wow. Tell us how you really feel!
    I am surprised you see Chomsky as a linguist. Come to think of it, that always surprises me when I hear peopel say that.

  3. Bathrobe says

    Yes, I was a bit taken aback by that formulation. It’s a long time since I’ve read Bloomfield, but for all his stature, I don’t remember him setting the world on fire — not my world, anyway.

  4. Bravo, Clarence. I tried to “remain independent of corporate structures,” but unfortunately I had to eventually go crawling to a couple of them for good-paying editing jobs in order to survive the rising costs of New York City; I know L Hat, you know this story.
    A student put a question on Yahoo Answers as to who were the top linguists of “recent years” [the student’s words]. Here is a list of the “answers” he got to his question:
    One reply was: “I think a man name ‘Cunni’ was a linguist.”
    Then came: “George W. Bush”
    Next a Mr. X gave as his answer: Winston Churchill; Margaret Thatcher; and Rudy Giuliani (who’d’a ever thought of Rudy as a great linguist, unless his vast knowledge of the language of bullshit qualifies him for that distinction).
    One intellectual suggested Champollian as a great “recent year” linguist.
    Then here came a rather shy answer: “Perhaps Noam Chomsky”
    And finally came a man who said he was a linguist though he only spoke one language–his list was
    Leonard Bloomfield, Ferdie Saussure (OK, the “recent years” doesn’t fit him, but the student asking the question won’t care as long as he can use Ferd’s name on his paper), and finally this guy said Noam Chomsky definitely was the greatest current linguist going.
    Noam is now in his deep 80s isn’t he? Soon there’ll be an opening for the Great American Linguist (sounds like a good show for Fox)–when I’m sent a ballot, I’m going to vote for my old friend Language Hat–I can vouch that he’s a great American–he knows his hats–and he is a great linguist, and not just I can vouch for that. Surely when Chomsky finally sails off into the cognitive psychological sunset, Language Hat will rise to the top of the heap.
    Speaking of “Heap.” As a kid I was fascinated by the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto using that word. “It heap plenty far, Kemosabe.” Did “plenty” always go with “heap” in Hollywood Injun speak?
    ur fiend,

  5. It’s a long time since I’ve read Bloomfield, but for all his stature, I don’t remember him setting the world on fire
    The whole idea of “setting the world on fire” is part of the politicization-cum-Barnumization of linguistics instituted by Chomsky and his crew of wreckers. Before that, linguistics was like, oh, I don’t know, physics, say, where people did solid work and were respected for it, and people who did really good work were respected even more. I know of no American linguist before the Revolution who was more universally respected than Bloomfield.

  6. I can verify that when I studied linguistics in 1975 Bloomfield was taught as the great American linguist. There may have been Europeans ahead of him in line, but no Americans. My teacher was a classmate of Chomsky’s and admired him just as much as Steve does.

  7. That last sentence is delightfully ambiguous; I can’t even guess which linguist is intended as the referent of “him.”

  8. I’d assumed he was referring to Chomsky, but you’re right, maybe not. John Emerson, who did you mean?

  9. I meant Chomsky. The ambiguity was accidental, but I like it.

  10. With all due respect to Mr. Hat, my linguistics instructor could rant circles around him.

  11. Yes, I like it too.

  12. marie-lucie says

    By sheer coincidence, just now I was reading an article on Le Monde online about Chomsky’s recent visit to Paris. The reporter bemoans the fact that Chomsky is no longer as lionized or even respected in France (including among linguists) as he used to be, but since he (the reporter) is not a linguist, he can only rely on Chomsky’s international reputation in the field, apparently held up by a single disciple of long standing, in Paris.

  13. Pierre Pica: The Last Disciple.
    “Viens, on va faire la révolution chomskienne à Paris !”
    Here‘s the direct link to the touching story.

  14. “the relationship with Bloomfield by itself would be worth an article.”

    At least one article has been published on that subject:

  15. Excellent, thanks for finding that!

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    The Le Monde article is indeed touching.

    As the article points out, the French are much more familiar with the public-intellectual shtick than Anglophones are. ANC lacks a certain je ne sais quoi necessary to cut it in that competitive arena in France. Also

    Une heure durant, en anglais et sans notes, le professeur de 81 ans a improvisé une leçon de linguistique générative

    The French may be less impressed by this sort of arrogance than Americans are. What I have seen of ANC’s lectures viva voce suggests that he is objectively a hopeless lecturer (like, to be fair, many another tenured full professor …)

    Didn’t know about the Faurisson thing. It does seem quite a good reason not to be too ready to take Chomsky as a serious moral voice, or indeed as a sensible individual at all. From WP: “Chomsky stated that ‘I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the Holocaust…I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson’s work.'”

    And (says his disciple)

    “J’ai posé la question à Noam : y a-t-il un rapport entre ta linguistique et ta politique, entre ce que tu nommes “problème de Platon” et “problème d’Orwell”? Il m’a répondu “non”.

    Never really thought about this before, but Chomsky’s insistence that linguistics has nothing at all to do with politics (and, in fact, with anthropology etc etc) is a neat encapsulation of the fundamental inadequacy of his view of language.
    (Also, exactly calculated to piss off the French.)

  17. “I know of no American linguist before the Revolution who was more universally respected than Bloomfield.”

    Maybe not more, but just as much: William Dwight Whitney and Edward Sapir.

  18. I’m not sure your “just as much” holds — Whitney was thought of mainly as a Sanskritologist and Sapir as an anthropologist (who of course made major contributions to linguistics). Bloomfield was a linguist pure and simple.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    There seems to have been a period where it was more or less mandatory, when writing a linguistic paper or monograph, to list Bloomfield’s Language* in your references. (And quite right too!)

    Modern works on syntax don’t have to reference anything by Chomsky, but the man is (regrettably) eminent enough that not doing so comes over as somewhat … pointed.

    * Sapir’s Language is much more fun, but it’s not really a textbook, and you’d only be likely to put it in your reference section out of pure joie de vivre. In fact the difference between the two books is a good reflection of the difference between the two (brilliant) authors in general.

  20. Chomsky’s international reputation in the field, apparently held up by a single disciple of long standing, in Paris.

    This sounds very much like the fellow who was world-famous in Poland.

  21. That great, great Polish actor, Joseph Tura.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, if your claim to an international reputation is going to be upheld by just one disciple, Paris is the place for them to be. Any Frenchman would surely agree with this self-evident proposition.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    I get the impression it’s also the only place where the international reputation of Fröd [as they say there] is still held up. It may have been the instinct of self-preservation that all this time has prevented me from becoming fluent in French. Can you imagine having to navigate mille plateaux of public intellectuals ? [shudder]

  24. John Cowan says

    “Chomsky stated that ‘I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the Holocaust…I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson’s work.’”

    Well, you know, Chomsky is not wrong wrong. One may (a) deny that the Haykʿ were killed in large numbers during WWI, or while conceding (a), deny that these killings met the definition of genocide, without (c) hating Haykʿ as individuals or (d) believing conspiracy theories about them. Similarly, one may deny the analogous propositions (a’) and (b’) about the Jews and not be an Antisemite. But it’s not the way to bet.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    I think “I see no hint” is difficult to explain away. People who are not deliberately closing their eyes in the service of an immature rhetorical point have no difficulty perceiving the “hint” at all, and I don’t believe that Chomsky has any actual difficulty perceiving it either: this is just flannel. Actually failing to understand this would be on a level with genuinely believing alt-right provocateurs when they claim that they were not really serious and their critics are overreacting (and humourless.)

    This is quintessentially Chomskyan. The title of C’s essay on this matter, Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression is also of a piece with his personality: it’s the “elementary”, with its charming implication that if you disagree with him, it’s because you’re stupid. His approach to politics and his approach to linguistics are united in this. In linguistics, at least, this repellent attitude has been assiduously imitated by many of his followers.

  26. What DE said. The “Well, actually…” approach is not especially useful here.

  27. nine tons of correspondence, business records, project files, reference books, citations, etc. (approximately a garage stall and a half) … 35 cartons of books … 60 file drawers … $250,000 (terms available)

    And it went to the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the same library that’s now working through Madeline Kripke’s collection.

    Somewhere in there are about 10,000 citation slips originally collected for the OED, then shipped to Chicago to be used for the Dictionary of American English (1938–1944), and when that was finished, sold to Barnhart.

    I inherited a copy of Barnhart and Stein’s American College Dictionary dated 1964, a time when the NORTH-FORCE distinction could still be taken for granted by dictionaries: it gives only one pronunciation for hoarse, different from horse.

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