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And who in time knows whither we may vent
It may seem singular that a claim for distinction should be seriously urged in favour of a Dictionary, because it contains an explanation of the meaning of words. What pretence, it will naturally be asked, can any work have to assume that title, unless the meaning of words is carefully and satisfactorily explained in it? Do not all Dictionaries profess this to be their main object, and is not their reputation founded upon the diligence and success with which they have laboured to accomplish it? That Dr. Johnson was impressed with a sense of the paramount importance of this portion of his duty, is manifest from the earnestness with which he enlarges upon it, in his “Plan of an English Dictionary.” But that his notions of the manner in which it ought to be performed, were very lax and imperfect, the instances which he himself produces to exemplify and illustrate his intended method of proceeding afford a signal proof.
If however his professions of performance are compared with the actual state of the work itself, it will be evident, that he must, at an early period of his labours, have abandoned his original design, if indeed he at all attempted to adhere to it.
In his plan, he writes, thus : " In explaining the general and popular language, it seems necessary to sort the several senses of each word, and to exhibit first its natural and primitive signification;" as.
“ To arrive, to reach the shore in a voyage; he arrived at a safe harbour. Then ;--to give its consequential meaning, to arrive, to reach any place whether by land or sea, as he arrived at his country seat.”
In the Dictionary, he writes,
“To arrive, (Fr. Arriver, to come on shore). 1. To come to any place by water :” and then follow five distinct explanations of meaning.
In his plan, he undertakes, as an Etymologist, to give (as the case may require) the Saxon Original, or, when that cannot be found, to supply the defect from the kindred languages; or, whenever the word is of French Origin, to show whence the French is apparently derived.
1. It is obvious to remark, that in the Dictionary, he does not show the apparent derivation of the French, (Arriver) and that the reader is thus left in ignorance of that which might easily have been told, and which, if it had been told, would have enabled him to judge of the propriety of the explanation.
2. That though the division, proposed in the Plan, into primitive and consequential, is in itself judicious, and correct, yet that in the particular example, it is inaccurately employed. The second meaning of Arrive, is not consequential or inferential ; it is not a consequence inferred from the first.
3. That though in the Plan these two meanings alone are given (with a mere remark upon usage), yet in the Dictionary, there are six distinct explanations, intended to be explanations of meaning : And further still, that one half the consequential meaning of the plan, is the entire primitive meaning of the Dictionary.
4. In the Dictionary, the explanation itself is at variance with the Etymology : that is—the primitive signification, ascribed to the word, does not accord with the Etymology upon which it is founded; and the quotation from Dryden, in support of the two, is most unfortunately opposed to both. It ought to have presented an example of some person or thing coming to some place by water, according to the explanation; or, on shore, according to the Etymology: but it is actually of an animal already on shore, journeying by Land, to the Banks of the Nile.
It aggravates the strange incongruity of the whole, that there is but one single interpretation of the noun, Arrival, though every passage quoted to exemplify the six meanings of the verb might be so translated as to admit a substitution of the noun.
There is one general errour pervading the explanations; an errour not confined to the Dictionary of Johnson ; but imputable to interpreters in general, who, “seeking the meaning of a word singly from the passages in which it is found, connect with it the meaning of some other word or words in the sentence.” This is to interpret the import of the context, and not to explain the individual meaning of the word. And Johnson, by pursuing this method sys
tematically, was led into the accidental but additional absurdity of opposing his authority to
This word may be denominated a pattern of his Book, it is selected and protruded by
It is, then, needless, and it would be invidious, to accumulate especial instances of failure; -the whole is a failure : and it will appear to be the more conspicuously deserving of that name, when we reflect upon the pre-eminent abilities of its renowned author. Had the Dictionary of the English Language been the production of any writer of less name, a period of eighty years would not have been permitted to elapse without the appearance of a rival. And so far the name of Johnson has been an obstacle to the advancement of Lexicography in this country: it has commanded admirers and supporters : and it has deterred competition.
No author is known to have undertaken the composition of a New Work, nor even to have engaged in the less honourable, but still arduous, and even praise-worthy, enterprize of remoulding and reforming the Old. Additions and supplements to the great increase of its bulk, have been collected and published; but all proceeding in imitation of the method pursued by Johnson.
I have thought it imposed upon me to premise these observations, because they anticipate, and provide an answer to the question which will very naturally be urged. Is there any want, any deficiency in our Literature, which the New Dictionary is intended to supply ?-The summary answer is That the only Dictionary, of which we can boast, was defective and erroneous in the first contrivance, and still more so in the actual composition : that it is in truth a Dictionary, in which we must expect to find neither the meaning of words nor their Etymology. What, then, it will reasonably be demanded, shall we find in this Great Work ;A collection, I reply, of usages, quoted from (in general) our best English authors, and those usages explained to suit the quotations; and those explanations including within them a portion of the sense pertaining to other words in the sentence. It may seem harsh, but it is strictly true ;--that a great variety of instances might, with very little trouble, be collected of distinctions, where no differences subsist; and where the quotation subjoined to one explanation might with equal propriety have occupied another position.
To refer again to his own specimen--"Arrive.” What difference, in the meaning of the word, can be discerned in the expressions produced by Johnson : “ To arrive on the banks of the Nile :" and, “ To arrive on the verge of an estate.” And yet they are separated, as if different.
” It would be gross injustice to the memory of Johnson, if I were not to add my perfect con
viction that from his pages might also be chosen interpretations expressed with most admirable precision and completeness : and I fully concur in the opinion of Mr. Nares,* that his authority has nearly fixed the external form of our language, and that from its decisions few appeals have been made.
There is, however, another question which the author of a book of such magnitude and importance, as an entirely New DICTIONARY of the English Language, ought to be prepared
And that is ; what pretensions has your book to be so designed and so composed as to supply the alleged deficiency? I am happily rescued from much of the embarrassment, and relieved from much of the difficulty, with which, under different circumstances, I should most undoubtedly feel myself oppressed in framing a reply: and I am so— by the manner in which this work was received on its first appearance, and has continued to be encouraged to the present moment of its republication in a separate and improved state.
The twentieth year has now commenced since the publication in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana of the first portion of the English Lexicon-as it is there named,—and I cannot but feel some emotions of pride, when I am reminded that in a work of such a character, as that Encyclopædia, in the construction of which some of the most learned and scientific persons of the day have borne their parts, my own individual portion has never been denied its full meed of esteem. The opinions, indeed, which have at various intervals in the progress of publication been publicly expressed, and privately communicated, were such as to sustain me to the end ; “ propositi difficultate, non segnior, sed audentior et constantior factus.”+
And now that I have persevered to the completion of a labour, which has very truly been pronounced to comprize within it“ omnes pænarum formas,” I endeavour to persuade myself that I
send these volumes forth to the world with the unobtrusive confidence of one who knows, in the first place, that he has spared no pains to establish a title to have his name enrolled among those who have advanced the literature of their country, and, in the second place, that such title has been by many, who were well qualified to decide, very explicitly acknowledged.
* On Orthoepy, Part 4, c. 3. Adelung has also commended this department of Johnson's work, and he adds, that Johnson has consigned all orthographic disputes to those, who, from want of more important knowledge, have no other means of obtaining reputation. + Wachter. Pref. One name I must mention, that of (I must now say the late) Rev. Edward Smedley, who, for thirteen
in character of editor of the Encyclopædia, has accompanied me, page by page. He frequently cheered me in my progress. I value his good opinion more than that of any other man, because, competent to judge as the best, he knew the book-better.