The Thirty-Three-Year Lexicon.

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!)


  1. Sutcliffe’s Informal History is full of good stories, like the compositor who sent along queries on the Rig Veda proofs, even though he knew no Sanskrit, when the motions didn’t fit the patterns he’d learned. (But three volumes of history for the press seems like it might be a bit much.)

  2. Asuri is an Austro-Asiatic language of India, distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. I think they meant Azeri.

  3. @ John Cowan: I assume its Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, also known as Aššuri or Assuri, which was historically spoken in Northern Iraq; I haven’t heard of any significant Azeri minority in Iraq.

  4. Charles Perry says

    But Syriac is also accepted as a language, and Syriac is the language of the Assyrian Christians. If Asuri doesn’t mean Azeri, the only reason I can think of is that for confessional reasons the dialect of the Catholic Chaldeans is being distinguished from the dialect of the Nestorian Assyrians.

  5. The gold medal in Slow Lexicography probably goes to the Pune Sanskrit Dictionary, which was begun in 1948 and is still in a.

  6. J. W. Brewer says

    @ Charles Perry, wikipedia alleges “Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is to a considerable extent mutually intelligible with Chaldean Neo-Aramaic . . . [citation needed]” So perhaps “Syriac” in the somewhat ESLish news source = the Chaldean variety and “Asuri” = the Assyrian? Wikipedia didn’t tell me in two minutes browsing whether these two varieties have two different literary standards (which might be relevant to how you do the counting for “official-language” purposes), and I don’t have time right now to dig deeper into that question.

  7. It appears that Arthur Mears was successful with publishing his
    dictionary, after all! At least Google Books is aware of it:
    Arthur MEARS, English and Russian Military Vocabulary, London, 1898. 127 pages.

    The text of the dictionary is not available for viewing on Google Books, but here’s a contemporary one-page review by Arthur A. Sykes. It is mentioned elsewhere that the cloth-bound volume, published by David Nutt, could be purchased for 5 shillings.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    By a remarkable coincidence, I just came across a footnote in Noeldeke’s “Syrische Grammatik” complaining that the imperfect verb forms given by Payne -Smith “sind nicht alle beglaubigt: einige entschieden unrichtig” (“are not all authenticated, some definitely wrong”) , so taking a long time may not always be a surefire way to accuracy.

  9. I’m guessing “Turkmen” in the list of official languages means “Turkish” — from Wikipedia and elsewhere (e.g. kerkuk dot net) it looks like Iraqi Turkmens use standard Anatolian Turkish as their written language.

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