William Falconer: poet and lexicographer
I’ve always been intrigued by lexicographers who turned their hand to fiction or poetry. There are plenty of examples, from Dr Johnson to Julian Barnes: how did their experience of the one medium inform the other? Were they flowing novelists with a lexicographer’s facility with words and meaning, all bound within a tight literary structure; or did they abandon the rigours of lexicography for the freedom of literary creation? And then there was William Falconer.
Who was William Falconer?
William Falconer is neither a poet nor a lexicographer known to many nowadays, but in his own day – the mid eighteenth century – he was a name to conjure with. He is known to lexicographers as the editor of the Universal Dictionary of the Marine, first published in 1769, the dominant nautical dictionary of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But he came to lexicography quite late in life. He put to use his earlier experience in the merchant marine as the background to his lexicography. The late doyen of American lexicography, Larry Urdang, used to castigate modern-day lexicographers for being landlubbers.
Falconer was born in Edinburgh about the year 1732 without a dream of lexicography in his head. After his schooling he bound himself apprentice on board ship, probably in the coal trade plying the sea routes on east coast of England from Northumberland down to London.
His life is something of a mystery in terms of formal records, and so commentators have turned to his autobiographical poetry (and especially to the ominously entitled epic poem The Shipwreck) for clues. By 1749, he was sailing in a merchantman engaged in the profitable trade with the Levant, but (as the poem may suggest) was indeed shipwrecked off south-eastern Greece on his way home.
He had literary aspirations, and contributed poems to the Gentleman’s Magazine. In 1751 he published an ode on the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, but his literary career took off in 1762 with the publication of his poem The Shipwreck, a lively and technically detailed account of life and death at sea, which was praised by Byron and Coleridge. A snippet (p. 6 of the first edition):
Some of the vocabulary of The Shipwreck was technical, of the sort familiar only to old sea-dogs like himself, and from the first edition it contained short glossarial notes explaining the vocabulary contained in the poem. This may have impeded the poem’s success (p. 26):
Soon after a second edition of the poem was published in 1764, he was minded or encouraged to compile a further mass of nautical glosses glossing his own complex maritime terminology. New publishers, ever vigilant for a new opportunity, encouraged him to direct his attention in future to a proper nautical dictionary.
Falconer’s maritime career came to the rescue. Further promotions, to posts as purser to ships not actually at sea, gave him time to pursue his literary interests. He buckled down to the task to elaborating his glossarial footnotes into a book, and his Universal Dictionary of the Marine was published in 1769, just in advance of a third, augmented edition of this poem.
Falconer’s strengths as a lexicographer derive from his easy mastery of technical detail, covering vocabulary of a sort typically not recorded by more general dictionaries such as Dr Johnson’s. His sea-going experience was matched by his verbal dexterity, and he produced a dictionary which satisfied the specialist and also enchanted the lay reader, at a time when fact-filled encyclopaedic dictionaries were coming into their own: Ephraim Chambers’ grand Cyclopaedia was one of many that were beginning to attract an audience in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Falconer explained his subject clearly for the non-specialist and for the aspiring sailor at a time of national naval supremacy, drawing his readers in by describing how and why particular sails or masts, for instance, were used as well as simply defining them.
Falconer had little time left to enjoy the success of his lexicography. On 20 September 1769 he set sail on the frigate Aurora for India. The ship reached Madagascar in April 1770 but was not heard of after this. It is assumed that Falconer died when the ship went down.
Perhaps his ship reappeared, a ghostly survivor on the ocean wave. There was a report in the General Evening Post of 1 July 1773 of “the Aurora being found pirating”, but this apparently “gains but little credit among the intelligent in East-India matters”, to whose greater knowledge we must defer.