He Touched His Dictionary and Died.

Nora-Ide McAuliffe describes for the Irish Times “how ‘Lane’s English-Irish Dictionary’ was born”; it’s quite a story:

It was in Paris in the 1880s that he began work on his dictionary. Dictionaries had been produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, but O’Neill Lane found them to be lacking. His aim was to produce something that would better inform students of Irish. By the time he finally finished, in 1904, he had spent more than £2,500 – more than €325,000 today – to complete it.

O’Neill Lane spent five years travelling around Ireland. He made the most of his time and wrote a series of travel books while visiting Gaeltacht areas, where he collected words and phrases from locals. Words thought to be obsolete in Munster he found alive and well in other parts of the country, so he documented regional variations of Irish words and phrases. …

As soon as his 581-page work was published, however, O’Neill Lane expressed dissatisfaction with it. He had at this stage given up his journalism career and partly blamed his Paris commitments for shortcomings in the first edition.

“When he realised that the first one was inadequate he started work straight away on the second,” says O’Maolcatha. “He had included in his first edition an appeal for corrections and omissions, with a prize of £25 for the person who provided him with the best information.” …

Although he received many subscriptions for the second edition, producing it left O’Neill Lane virtually penniless. The day before he passed away a copy of the dictionary arrived by train at his local station in Limerick. He laid his hands on it on his deathbed and died on May 8th, 1915.

You’ve got to love anything that includes sentences like “O’Neill Lane asked that corrections be sent to Tournafulla, a parish a few kilometres from Templeglantine…” Thanks, Trevor!


  1. “Tournafulla” might sound very exotic, but it simply means, “field of blood”.

  2. Call me a sheltered Modern, but if anything I find “field of blood” even more exotic than “Tournafulla”.

  3. For those unable to Google, scriobh.ie links to both the 1904 and 1917 editions on the Internet Archive.

  4. Matthew 27:8

  5. So what you’re saying is that Judas was buried in Ireland.

  6. What a great way for a writer to die.

  7. Terrific. I’m always impressed when I encounter a dictionary created by an individual, rather than a committee. The personal story is an extra treat.

  8. I agree, which is one reason (besides the fact that it’s very good) I treasure the dictionary I wrote about here.

  9. A one-person dictionary must necessarily be restricted in its vocabulary. No one person could live long enough to do the work of Trench, Coleridge, Furnivall, Murray, Bradley, Craigie, Onions, Burchfield, Weiner, Simpson, and Proffitt (and perhaps a few more before all is done).

  10. Every dictionary must necessarily be restricted in its vocabulary.

  11. A one-person dictionary must necessarily be restricted in its vocabulary.

    That’s not the point. I’m sure Murray et al leaned heavily on Johnson. Ditto the hugely influential Webster, by many accounts a crank. Klein and Brown-Driver-Briggs are indebted to Gesenius. Pokorny probably looked to Skeat and Kluge. I don’t know to what degree Duden was dependent on his forebears, but surely he ranks with Webster. Harkavy and Ben-Yehuda, as far as I know, worked essentially from scratch. There must be others, like O’Neill Lane, who are nearly anonymous.

    Over the years I’ve put together about half a dozen style guides for periodicals. None exceeded some ten pages and content was almost always limited to specialty terms (with reference to major works, such as the Associated Press Stylebook). I stand in awe before the multiple decades of work and extreme dedication of these lexicographers.

  12. Harkavy and Ben-Yehuda, as far as I know, worked essentially from scratch.

    As did Dahl.

  13. John Emerson says

    What is the real word for “badger suet”?

  14. marie-lucie says

    Shelley: What a great way for a writer to die.

    My feeling exactly.

  15. It’s certainly a stylish way to die, but for a writer, it’s a rather tragic way to die too, seeing as he did get the chance to bask in his hard-earned glory.

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