Of dictionaries and cicadas

Lisa Hill’s recent post (at her blog ANZ Litlovers) on Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was timely. A week or so back I watched the 2019 film ‘The Professor and the Madman’, directed by the Iranian-American Farhad Safinia, based on the 1998 book by Simon Winchester with the less strident title The Surgeon of Crowthorne – a sort of joint biography of James Murray, who in 1879 became the editor of the New English Dictionary – later known as the Oxford English Dictionary, and of W.C. Minor.

Minor had been an army surgeon during the American Civil War, after which his mental health deteriorated. Having moved to England, he shot and killed a man in Lambeth in 1872, was found not guilty at trial on the grounds of insanity, and was committed to what was called, in those less forgiving times, the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire. Minor read the appeal by Murray’s team for contributions of quotations from the major works published in the English language that would illustrate the evolving meaning of words from their earliest usage. He became one of the most prolific of contributors to the project, and Murray went to visit him often from 1891.

The film has a powerful, committed performance as Minor from Sean Penn. Mel Gibson got to air his dodgy Scots accent again (yes, ‘Braveheart’ wasn’t his finest hour) in a strange bit of casting as Murray. As a film it was pretty poor, but gave a reasonably sympathetic account of the early struggles to get the OED project off the ground (Murray didn’t live to see the final volume of the first edition published in 1928).

Lisa’s post describes Pip Williams’ novel as a kind of counter-factual feminist vision of how the OED might have been compiled if it hadn’t been such an androcentric product of the late Victorian patriarchy. It sounds fascinating, and I commend Lisa’s post to you.

She has some interesting things to say about the OED’s entry for loaded words (in terms of gendered usage) like ‘service’, ‘bondmaid’ and ‘delivered’.

Cover of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything

That’s the famous photo of Murray in his Scriptorium

This morning while looking for something to read next (after Donna Leon), I noticed on my shelf another Simon Winchester history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything, published by the OUP in 2003 as a sort of sequel to The Surgeon. I’d forgotten that I’d read it, and spent some happy time leafing through it.

There are some fascinating photo portraits of some of the key figures in the development of the OED. Right at the start (and on the cover in my picture) is Murray himself in his Scriptorium, where he began to pigeon-hole the millions of slips of paper sent in by contributors like Minor, on which were handwritten the citations illustrating usage of words. There are also images from earlier dictionaries of the English language, like Cawdrey’s (one of my earliest posts was about this, and other forerunners of Murray like Blount, Minsheu and Mulcaster: link HERE).

As I flipped through the pages I came across a delightful passage from K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s 1977 biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, about a typical day’s bout of his dictionary-related correspondence (all written by hand, of course, with a second ‘fair copy’ as well). These included requests to the director of the botanical gardens at Kew for information about the first record of an exotic plant, and to various contemporary authors about the meanings of words they’d used in their novels or poems.

One of these was to Lord Tennyson, ‘to ask where he got the word balm-cricket, and what he meant by it’, in his poem ‘Dirge’. A footnote explains that this is another term for the common cicada, and is a mistaken translation from the German Baumgrille, meaning tree-cricket. It wasn’t Tennyson’s mistake originally – he’d borrowed it from an 18C author.

‘Dirge’ was first published 1830, revised 1842. With seven stanzas of six lines each, it has an unfortunate refrain, repeated twice in each stanza, at lines three and six: ‘Let them rave.’

It appears to address a person (a woman?) reposing in their grave, while the busy world raves on round them (Van Morrison was to use a similar image). It’s full of intrusive archaisms, like ‘Thee nor carketh care nor slander’. Carketh – even the inflection is archaic. From the Middle English via Old French and Latin (meaning ‘burden’); here’s the OED online (how James Murray would have loved computers and the internet: they would have shortened his work by decades) –

That which burdens the spirit, trouble; hence, troubled state of mind, distress, anxiety; anxious solicitude, labour, or toil. (In later use generally coupled with care.) archaic.

The poem’s troubled, stumbling rhythm is largely trochaic, I suppose to give a melancholy air; instead it makes it almost impossible to read aloud and make sense, hampered further by some weird imagery and awkward archaisms:

The frail bluebell peereth over

Rare broidery of the purple clover.

Let them rave.

‘Rare’ here seems to be OED online’s (rare) sense of ‘Of colour: thin, faint, pale’, or maybe ‘exceptional’ (as in the old ballad’s refrain about ‘rare Turpin, hero’).

Here’s the bit with the cicada:

The balm-cricket carols clear

In the green that folds thy grave.

Let them rave.

It’s hard to hear the raucous scratching screech of a nocturnal cicada as ‘carols clear’. As so often with early Tennyson, the imagery sounds impressive and mellifluous, but doesn’t stand much close scrutiny in terms of meaning. Still, a poem should not mean, but be, as someone famously said.

PS a ‘dirge’ – a song or poem of lament or mourning, suitable for a funeral – derives from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”), the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office for the Dead, created on basis of Psalms 5:8 (5:9 in Vulgate). (Wikipedia).