Loving Lexica

By Adam Serfass, associate professor of classics

In the cluttered confines of my desk drawers lurk relics of my past as a reader: bookmarks on which I jotted down unfamiliar words that I later looked up in lexica. I choose one bookmark and scan the list, which includes matelot, besom, knout, and another dozen or so words. I can define some of the entries—stoup, embrocation; regarding others, I'm clueless— isinglass. Still other words I recognize, but their precise meanings elude me—bombazine? Although it sounds like a heavy-duty sedative, I know it's a kind of old-fashioned fabric. As to its color, from what material it's made—on these details I'm a bit hazy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reveals that bombazine is made, partly or wholly, from worsted. Worsted? I've always been weak on textiles; back to the dictionary.

Words can take us to other worlds, now lost. Think of the glebes and benefices of Trollope's country clergy, the dead drops and honey traps of le Carré's Cold War spies, the hawsers and spotted dick of Patrick O'Brian's sailors. (Spotted dick is suet pudding speckled with dried fruit. Serious readers of British literature must know their puddings.) The raw realities of nineteenth-century London are revealed by the jobs of those who populated it: beadsmen, costermongers, ratters, scullions, mudlarks.

Lexica breathe life into these words. The more you dig in the dictionaries, the more vivid the words become. Take mudlark. It doesn't appear in my go-to lexicon, the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. Fall back, then, to the OED. There it is. First attested in 1796 and "now chiefly hist.," a mudlark, according to the noun's second definition, is "a person who scavenges for usable debris in the tidal mud of a river, harbour ... [or] in a sewer." My interest piqued, I turn to a more specialized book, Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, to fill in the gruesome details. Specialized lexica can be a strange delight: consider Slayer Slang, published by the august Oxford University Press. This book is a comprehensive guide to the argot spoken on Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It occupies a position of honor on my shelves.

I teach in a field—classics—that relies on dictionaries more than most. There are no native speakers of ancient Greek and Latin with whom we can check the accuracy of our translations, so we turn to these tomes. The great Greek and Latin lexica are linguistic treasuries, with long and colorful histories. In 1893, industrious German scholars began work on the definitive multivolume Latin dictionary. Their descendants, still going strong, are almost through the letter P. Charles Short, Kenyon's ninth president, co-edited another major Latin dictionary. Short was responsible for the entries under the letter A and his partner, Charlton Lewis, for those under B through Z. Despite the uneven workload, Short shares the spotlight in classicists' moniker for the dictionary, "Lewis and Short."

Today's standard Greek-English lexicon was co-edited by Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, whose daughter Alice inspired a mathematical colleague to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The lexicon was a bestseller: Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, sought to acquire his own copy when he was only sixteen.

If you spend time with such dictionaries, you realize that speakers of other languages see things differently, that their words shape, organize, and make sense of the world in unfamiliar ways. To take one example: in English, we speak antithetically of work and leisure. Writing this piece at my desk is work; recovering afterward on the couch is leisure. In Latin, the corresponding words are, respectively, negotium and otium, but the correspondence between the Latin and English terms is not exact. The base word is otium, leisure; the word for work is otium negated, literally "not-leisure." Otium is the "default mode," negotium a departure from it. Would our lives change were English to speak of work and leisure as Latin does?

Delve further into the dictionaries, and you learn that elite Romans saw otium less as a time of idleness than as one of cultural consumption and production. This concept of leisure may seem somewhat alien to us. Few twenty-first century Americans write epic poems to unwind, though plenty of Romans did. That negotium and otium are linguistically linked also implies that, in ancient Rome, the line between work and leisure was porous. This seems more familiar. Caesar and Cicero would understand home offices and drinks with clients just fine. As this example of otium and negotium suggests, when you study another language through its lexica, you end up learning much about your own.

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