The Pleasure of Historical Dictionaries.

John Considine’s essay “Why do large historical dictionaries give so much pleasure to their owners and users?” (from the Proceedings of Euralex 1998) is not especially perceptive (“When large historical dictionaries are opened, they may give certain limited kinds of pleasure […] An analogous case is that of etymological information, which is also not particularly useful, but much enjoyed by readers”), but it has a good number of lively quotes, mainly about the OED; e.g. from a New Statesman review c. 1910:

[Large dictionaries] are something more than works of reference … a large dictionary is first-class reading. Murray’s [the Oxford English Dictionary] would be as good a companion on a desert island as a man could hope for, as, apart from the history of the words, the quotations are endlessly entertaining in themselves. It is like having all the birthday books and literary calendars ever written rolled into one.

Or this from Rose Macaulay:

[…] having heaved one of the somewhat ponderous volumes of this mighty work from its shelf (this is one of the [main] ways in which I keep in good athletic training) I continue to read in it at random, since it would be waste to heave it back at once. I need not expatiate on the inexhaustible pleasure to be extracted from the perusal of this dictionary, from the tasting of this various feast of language, etymology, and elegant extracts from all the periods of English literature.

(I supplied “main” from a Google Books snippet of Macaulay’s text; alas, Considine is one of the many writers careless with their quotes.)

And from Arnold Bennett: “I have been buying it in parts for nearly forty years and am still buying it. The longest sensational serial ever written!” Good stuff. (Via an eudæmonist.)


  1. I like Considine’s paper nonetheless and feel it speaks to something we are truly losing with digital dictionaries. You might enjoy Lynda Mugglestone’s forthcoming paper on her discovery of the OED1 proofs with editor’s annotations and last-minute corrections sent to the printers for something on a similar theme.

  2. Oh, I liked it, I just thought it could have been better written. Thanks for the Mugglestone heads-up! (You might send me a link when it becomes available.)

  3. (I’ve always liked the name Mugglestone, which is apparently from Mucklestone, “now in the parish of Loggerheads, in the Newcastle-under-Lyme district, in the county of Staffordshire, England.” Loggerheads is great too.)

  4. The original quiz, if I may:
    The original sense of quiz, noun, was a queer phiz, and the former may be a blend, contraction, abbreviation of the latter.

    The collocation queer phiz, once fairly common, before the attestation of quiz, gradually fell out of use, which could help explain, not only the origin, but also why that origin was eventually largely forgotten.

    This explanation, in my view, is preferable to a [later-proposed?] Latin quis then quiz somehow as a vir bonus.

    It is certainly better than the later-set story of chalking it roundabout Dublin, as if a newly-invented word, to win a bet. (Though that story may indicate that the origin was not known to that joker.)

    Here is a relevant antedating, contributed by David Denison on Language Log, May 14:

    “In our Hamilton project we slightly antedated OED’s _quiz_ in sense ‘[a]n odd or eccentric person; a person whose appearance is peculiar or ridiculous’ (s.v., n. 1.a). It’s used twice by George, Prince of Wales in 1779:
    I think then the Quizz’s would have stood no chance of escaping notice, there were but two during the whole of our stay that attracted the attention of the whole of our Company (GEO/ADD/3/82/11 p.1,;!!OToaGQ!v2382EpIfaEp7bX2QpNOwFaMOecoQAqXIILU2z7bMkh5ufYrtCANHmnCfHv26mpwgbnHTqdITVzuVsYHxw4$ )
    I think we may encroach so far, as to have a laugh at the Quizzs (GEO/ADD/3/82/22 p.4,;!!OToaGQ!v2382EpIfaEp7bX2QpNOwFaMOecoQAqXIILU2z7bMkh5ufYrtCANHmnCfHv26mpwgbnHTqdITVzuJnC47Go$ )

    On which I commented, May 15:

    “Thanks, David Denison. In that [first of two] early use of Quizz’s, as your Mary Hamilton Papers site explains, “The Prince refers to a ‘little Original of a French Painter, about as high as my Elbow, and Mrs Bludworth, a more disagreeable prim, stiff creature I never saw’ attracting attention at Windsor.” In other words, seen as queer physiognomy.”*comments__;Iw!!OToaGQ!v2382EpIfaEp7bX2QpNOwFaMOecoQAqXIILU2z7bMkh5ufYrtCANHmnCfHv26mpwgbnHTqdITVzuvY-w73g$

    1748 “….what is called a queer phiz, occasioned by a long chin, an hook nose, and high cheek bones, rendered him on the whole a very fit subject for mirth and pleasantry.” Smollett, Adventures of Roderick Random

    1780 John Hope, Hope’s Curious and comic miscellaneous works, started in his walks … (HathiTrust) 261: But now it seems no longer odd;/For here thou say’st, my little quiz!/ (How could I read it in thy phiz?)

    1783 “….a number of the Scholars [at Harrow] seeing that they were strangers, had gathered about them, calling them ludicrous names, such as bucks, bloods, and quizzes [quizzes in italics], which latter was explained by Mr. Bearcroft, as the cant word of the school for the year, being an abbreviation of the words [italic next two:] quere phizzes, and that the Defendants had pulled the hair of the Plaintiffs, spit upon them, and otherwise ill treated them…” Stamford Mercury, Thurs. June 19, 1783, p.3 col. 3

    1795 “let us quiz/ His ugly phiz.”

    1797 queer phiz , The ” wonder – wounded ” multitude read Quiz !

    1799 queer phiz

    1802 “At length it was announced, that Pic-Nic, like Quoz, which was chalked some years ago on windows and doors, really meant nothing.”pic-nic….Quoz.” n Spirit of Public Journals (1803) vol. 6 197 OED (early claim of chalking a made-up word, later claimed for quiz)

    1802 “…a very queer kind of quiz…so prim in his phiz.” or 1800

    1802 “Quiz is a kind of a sort of a word…A mixture of odd and queer…”

    1802 ” QUIZ . This cant word is frequently used as a substantive to describe a strange, out of the way character.”

    1807 queer phiz, ugliest Quiz

    1813 “queer quiz!/ with psalm-singing phiz”

    1822 queer phiz and idiot men

    1823 queer phiz was such as might invite a quiz

    1838 Sketches for Young Couples… by Quiz, Illustrated by Phiz. (When did Edward Caswall adopt the pen-name Quiz?)

    1841 “Many years ago the favourite phrase (for, though but a monosyllable, it was a phrase in itself) was Quoz.” C. Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions vol. I. 325 OED

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    He says “my argument will focus on OED,”* but his argument then seems to give no attention whatsoever to any other examples of the supposed class “large historical dictionaries,” unless a two-sentence anecdote about Estienne’s _Thesaurus Graecae Linguae_ counts, or unless “large” and “historical” are such loose criteria that other English-language dictionaries he does mention like the AHD or Wester’s 3d count. Whether the reaction the OED has elicited certain enthusiasts in Anglophone societies is or is not characteristic of the “pleasure of historical dictionaries” cross-culturally and cross-linguistically would seem to be the question to be investigated rather than the conclusion to be assumed.

    *Who are these barbarians who refer to the OED anarthrously?

  6. Stu Clayton says

    Who are these barbarians who refer to the OED anarthrously?

    The usual arthless chaps and tiny Heinies.

  7. I’ve always liked the name Mugglestone

    presumably sharing an origin with muggleton, as in lodowicke, the eponym of one of the best-named (and one of my favorite) heterodoxies in the anglophone world! (and perhaps worth reviving specifically to troll joanne – יִמַּח פּסעװדאָשְׁמוֹ – though that’s so easy that the effort may be unnecessary)

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    But can its etymology be somehow speculatively linked to Heavens to

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s hard to dislike the Muggletonians.
    As WP recounts:

    The group grew out of the Ranters and in opposition to the Quakers. Muggletonian beliefs include a hostility to philosophical reason, a scriptural understanding of how the universe works and a belief that God appeared directly on Earth as Jesus Christ. A consequential belief is that God takes no notice of everyday events on Earth and will not generally intervene until it is meant to bring the world to an end.

    Muggletonians avoided all forms of worship or preaching, and met only for discussion and socializing. The movement was egalitarian, apolitical and pacifist, and resolutely avoided evangelism. Members attained a degree of public notoriety by cursing those who reviled their faith. This practice ceased in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the last to be cursed was the novelist Sir Walter Scott.

    The last of them only died in 1979.

    Not to be confused with Malcolm Muggeridge, who was much less cuddly.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    I am supportive of all projects to troll joanne, but if it’s the obvious trollee, I can’t see the potential for a Muggletonian revival to do this … oh.

    Now I do …

  11. I don’t know who joanne is, but —

    יִמַּח פּסעװדאָשְׁמוֹ

    Wow. You got me there.

  12. i can explain the neologism (which will hopefully lead to the target), but should i?

    (and i remain skeptical of the “apolitical” part of “egalitarian, apolitical and pacifist”, at least in some periods, given e.p. thompson’s persuasive argument in Witness Against the Beast that william blake was a muggletonian. not that blake’s particular politics were necessarily typical of his co-congregants, but i think his kind of non-/anti-state radicalism fits alongside a range of others (many of them more quietistic) in a spectrum or constellation of stances that are illegible enough within dominant frameworks of what “political” is supposed to look like to get dismissed as “apolitical”. for a contemporary version of that misreading, there’s no need to look further afield than the response of much of the electorally-focused sphere in the u.s. to the increasingly visible presence of people rejecting both candidates slated for the 2024 presidential ballot on the basis of their shared support for genocide.)

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    but should i?

    For Science!

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Follow the science ! Follow the pied piper, or the yellow brick road ! So many people want a Führer. They’ll get what they wish for if they’re not careful.

  15. Muggletonians avoided all forms of worship or preaching, and met only for discussion and socializing.

    A bit like an amateur rugby club, then?

  16. I got the neologism, but not before my mind did a backflip. I still don’t know who joanne is.

  17. @Y: I will violate the hattic irony to reveal that it’s J. K. Rowling.

  18. Oh, that one. Well, rozele, you kinda got your wish, then.

  19. David Marjanović says

    …who isn’t a K., her grandmother is. Her first publisher just wanted a second initial.

    Anyway, I see no reason why Epicurean muggles should be apolitical; it does not follow.

  20. For Science!

    יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ yimmaḥ šǝmô ‘may his name be wiped/erased’ is a common and very strong curse. Its abbreviation ימ”ש is often attached to the names of Very Nasty People. But then, rozele glued to שְׁמוֹ šǝmô ‘name-his’ the prefix פּסעװדאָ /psevdo/, in Yiddish orthography (i.e. ‘may his pseudonym be erased’), which made my eyes cross, as well as the brain parts attached to them.

    I was misled by thinking ‘joanne’ is an online handle from some internet world I had never heard of. I was going to wait to see who it was before issuing a pedantic correction that it should be שְׁמָהּ šǝmāh ‘her name’, but now I won’t anyway, because how do you like them apples, joanne?

    Plus, aren’t שְׁמָהּ and שְׁמוֹ homophonous in Yiddish?

    Ed. jinx! And corrected /w/ to /v/ in the Yiddish.

  21. ninja’d on my own explanation by Y!

    it’s “ymakh psevdo-shemo”: the formula for ritual oblivion (“may his name be erased”) crossbred with yiddish “psevdonim”. i assume the pronunciation means it came through russian, which might mean it’s a later absorbtion – i tend to think of most internationalisms following polish or german.

    aren’t שְׁמָהּ and שְׁמוֹ homophones in Yiddish
    i’m not the most reliable source on this (and dovid katz isn’t helping), but with the komets , i’d say them the same! though i hope i’d’ve spelled it with ה if i’d thought on it for another few minutes.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    “Ritual Oblivion” sounds plausibly like the name of a band I probably saw once circa ’86 opening for another band you probably haven’t heard of either even though they seemed like a bigger deal (in certain limited and idiosyncratic circles) at the time.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    ritual oblivion

    In a thread here recently (or when I ran with it later, offline) the historical phenomenon of damnatio memoriae came up. The point of the ritual was not to remind people to forget about someone – that wouldn’t work, because paradox – but rather to keep his name under wraps.

    The law would come get you if you spoke the forbidden name of the person involved. It was ok to pass along the info that there was a ban in force – provided no names were named.

    I guess something similar is at work with euphemisms such as “pennies” and “volvo”. You have to immer schon know what’s meant, otherwise you’re none the wiser.

    Anyway, I read that the expression damnatio memoriae first appears “in a 1689 German manuscript” (in Germany, not in German?) The Romans wrote of memoria damnata or, earlier, the more straightforward abolitio nominis.

  24. cuchuflete says

    My favorite big old dictionary–I bought the three volume facsimile around 1967-is available online.




  25. i think ymakh shemo is partly about damnatio memoriae, and partly about synecdochial (synecdochistic? synecdochian?) magic with names, which is all over jewish ritual and mystical practice. when a common way to refer to a god whose appellation is too powerful to be uttered is “the name”, erasing that element of a person is the same as erasing them from the world.

  26. WP on Yimakh shemo.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    synecdochial (synecdochistic? synecdochian?)

    I knew only synecdochal. But it’s not a word I use, partly because of the uncertainties you adduce. And because many people don’t know what it means, myself included. Even “metonymy” is too fancy for me.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Then there is Synecdoche, New York, the most brain-numbingly tedious widely-praised film that I have ever seen.

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