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The bizarre history of the Oxford Latin Dictionary

When we are unsure of the meaning of a word, or want to know when it was first used, or what alternative spellings it has, we consult the dictionary. People often refer to “the dictionary,” as if there were only one, or as if it didn’t matter which one was consulted. But then most households probably only have one dictionary of any size, though consultation via computers, tablets, or smartphones is becoming increasingly common. Reference works of this kind hide in the light. They are so obviously present as resources, waiting to be consulted, that we don’t often think about them as topics in their own right. But the history of dictionary-making is as complicated and intriguing as any other history. Once we penetrate the sheer authoritative presence of a dictionary, we often find the human fragility of failures, wrong turns, conflict, and uncertainty.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary is no exception to this generalization. A new Latin dictionary was commissioned by Oxford University Press in 1875, but abandoned in the following decade, and an American book by Charlton Lewis and Charles Short adopted instead. Work began on Oxford Latin Dictionary in 1933, but it was not finally published until 1982. Why did it take nearly fifty years to put together? The first editor appointed, Alexander Souter, made slow progress, his sample entries were savaged by the press’s learned advisers, and he was retired in 1939. World War II dispersed the staff and slowed progress to a snail’s pace. Souter’s successor, James Wyllie, was a talented lexicographer but proved difficult to deal with and was dismissed after a mental breakdown in 1954. From then until his death in 1971, Wyllie issued a long series of visionary pamphlets. He was succeeded by Peter Glare, a safe pair of hands, who saw the project through to completion.

Another factor which made for slow progress was that the Oxford Latin Dictionary was assembled from scratch, from a fresh reading of Latin texts. In this it followed the strategy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), whose main sequence was completed after fifty years of work in 1928. The two dictionaries were also linked as products of the same lexicographical factory, assembled by OUP in the 1880s and housed in the Dictionary Room at the Old Ashmolean Museum in Oxford since 1903. (It also housed the team working on the revision of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, published in parts between 1925 and 1940.) The decision to start work on the Oxford Latin Dictionary was in fact motivated in part by a concern to provide employment for the staff of OED after it completed publication. This is a useful reminder that dictionaries are not just reference resources for readers. Their preparation involves large-scale projects and demands considerable investment of time, staff, and money.

The history of dictionary-making is littered with unfinished projects. The roll of books begun but never completed is a long one, and looking at it makes one appreciate how remarkable it was that OED and the Oxford Latin Dictionary were completed. In fact in the 1890s, when economic depression reduced the Press’s overall profits and the OED’s costs soared, it came close to being cancelled.

The histories I’ve mentioned are internal ones, but dictionaries are published in a competitive marketplace, and their success or failure depends in part on the nature of the competition. American readers may be familiar with the long-running battles between Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester in the nineteenth century, or between Merriam-Webster and Funk and Wagnall in the twentieth. In both cases, the publication of a massive dictionary by one firm was soon followed by the appearance of a bigger and (allegedly) better book from its rival.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary is in the unusual position of having no obvious rival, certainly in English-speaking countries. The same goes for its sister dictionary, Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. ‘Liddell and Scott’ has acquired a lot of stories since its first appearance in 1843. It had two editors, and was known to some users as ‘our two friends’ — though Liddell, when challenged about an entry, was reputed to have replied, “Scott wrote that part.” And of course Liddell was the father of Alice in Wonderland. But the history of the Oxford Latin Dictionary has its own stories and, as new readers engage with it, will surely gain more.

This article originally appeared on the OUPblog.