An Early Modern English Dictionaries Corpus 1499-1659


Early Modern English dictionaries, Palsgrave, Elyot, Thomas, Florio, Cotgrave, Cawdrey, Blount, definition, meaning, interpretation, equivalence, etymology, denotation

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Lancashire, I. (1996). An Early Modern English Dictionaries Corpus 1499-1659. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (4). DOI:


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1. The Texts

Early English dictionaries take three forms, "originals" or seminal works, books derived from them, and specialized lexicons. Upwards of 400 English dictionaries, including enhanced re-editions, revisions of these, and reprints, survive until the late eighteenth century, but the number of seminal works is much smaller (Alston 1966; Stein 1985). These influential dictionaries are much more likely to be bilingual or polyglot, linking two or more languages for different purposes (the learning of a second tongue, etymological study, etc.), than they are to be monolingual, i.e., reference works for English only. A shortlist of seminal works in England up to 1660 might include (a) bilingual dictionaries such as Medulla Grammatice,[*1] Promptorium Parvulorum (1499), John Palsgrave's for English-French (1530),[*2] Sir Thomas Elyot's for Latin-English (1538), Thomas Cooper's for Latin-English (1565), John Baret's for French-Latin-English (1573-4),[*3] Thomas Thomas's for Latin-English (1587), John Florio's for Italian-English (1598 and 1611), Randle Cotgrave's for French-English (1611), John Minsheu's for Spanish-English (1617), and William Somner's for Latin-Anglo-Saxon (1659), and (b) monolingual dictionaries like Thomas Blount's (1656). Until 1604, English lacked any monolingual dictionary; the first large one was Blount's.[1] The third type of early dictionary serves single subjects such as canting, law, science, and the sea; for example, John Cowell's Interpreter (1607), John Smith's Sea Grammar (1627), and Henry Mainwaring's Seaman's Dictionary (1644).

Dictionaries should be distinguished from vocabularies and glossaries, which form parts of other works. English vocabularies and glossaries have been well mined for information now, at least up to 1640. All Old English glossaries are now in machine-readable form as part of the Toronto Old English corpus. The late Jürgen Schäfer published in 1989 a list of word-forms from about 135 glossaries between 1485 and 1640 (as well as from the small English dictionaries by Cawdrey,[*4] Cowell, Bullokar, and Cockeram) that add information to 5,000 OED entries. There are 47,938 headwords in the works that Schäfer searched, but 28,391 of these come from only six works: Edmund Coote, Thomas Speght's edition of Chaucer, Cawdrey's dictionary (in four editions), John Cowell's work on law words, and dictionaries by Bullokar and Cockeram. Schäfer's excellent work tells us that ten percent of headwords in these early works contribute something to the OED.[2]

Researchers find these dictionaries useful in many ways. They can add to modern historical dictionaries such as the MED and OED, though we may one day be able to build from these old books a prototype of a Renaissance monolingual dictionary that never actually existed. The full range of dictionaries, including revisions of these originals at different times (some went through nearly 30 editions and changed as the times did), will allow historical linguists to measure the change of a language in great detail, in much the same way as British teams are now using modern newspaper and other texts in monitor corpora. Researchers have also been investigating the evolving structure of these early dictionaries, a field called metalexicography; this theoretical study may have some wide practical applications. I use the early bilingual dictionaries to study the English texts of Renaissance authors, both by learning how people then thought about meaning generally, and by seeing how they implicitly assign meaning to English words in the course of relating them to synonyms and foreign-language equivalents.

The current Early Modern English corpus at Toronto now includes six bilingual dictionaries from 1538 to 1611 (Palsgrave, Elyot, the two Thomases, Florio, and Cotgrave), several short English-only, so-called 'hard-word' dictionaries including Henry Cockeram's of 1623, and about one hundred other non-lexicographical texts. In a paper delivered at the second CCHWP conference in October 1991 (Lancashire 1992), I outlined a possible SGML tagging system for this corpus, one that, with the recent publication of the Text-Encoding Initiative guidelines, will have to be revised.[3] At the ICAME (International Computer Archive of Modern English) conference in Nijmegen in the summer of 1992, now published, I illustrated both traditional and unusual ways of exploiting this corpus to learn about Early Modern English and the literature of that period. Using the TACT system, I examined all English words from AA- to AC- in the two dictionaries and discovered a number of antedatings and of senses, words, and English proverbs unrecorded in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I also analyzed the words Shakespeare employs in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, in keeping with my goal of using these works to help us interpret Renaissance authors. The dictionary quotations, as expected, helpfully glossed Shakespeare's lines. One of them, "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", proved to denote an actual weapon (according to several Cotgrave entries, slings were then used to launch stone arrows against enemy positions). As well, I produced two sample entries for common words (truth and pepper) in a prototype monolingual lexicon, in effect "inverting" Cotgrave, who uses French words as his headwords (for which reason information about the English words are obscured). Last, after describing the problems of dictionary inversion, this paper gives a maximal phrasal repetend graph for the word truth that conflates data from four sources, the Elizabethan homilies, Bacon's essays, and Palsgrave and Cotgrave. It shows the usefulness of having input the dictionaries in the first place in order to provide a linguistic background against which the idiolect of individual writers may be judged.[4]

It is now widely believed that these early dictionaries have a useful, but not revisionist role to play in understanding Early Modern English: they can supply the OED with some neglected rare words, new illustrative quotations, and many antedatings. However, it is possible that a computer corpus based on early dictionaries can offer a genuine and in some respects superior alternative to the OED. I will argue that the latter makes some anachronistic assumptions about how Renaissance speakers understood word-meaning and that the early dictionaries demonstrate this.

2. What Modern Lexicographers Tell us about Lexical Meaning

In planning the Early Modern English Dictionary project (EMED) during the 1930s, to document English from the late fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century, Charles C. Fries identified seven kinds of English usage not well described by the OED. These were derived forms (e.g., adverbs created from adjectives), compounds, "concrete words" (e.g., colours), foreign words, collocations and phrases (e.g., proverbs), "abbreviations and contractions", and "derived senses" (such as common terms given special senses in a field like art). A sample EMED entry on the word sonnet cited by Richard W. Bailey confirmed Fries' expectations and satisfied two special additional requirements that Fries found wanting in the OED: one for "contemporary comments" on words (Fries takes two of seven examples from contemporary bilingual dictionaries by Randle Cotgrave and Edward Phillips), and the other for "ambiguous instances" (Bailey 1980: 203-8). Meeting additional needs identified by Charles Fries for a dictionary that returns to us what was described as a contemporary understanding of the language would have produced an EMED four-to-five times as large as the OED itself; and so Fries was forced to abandon his plan for practical reasons. However, when Bailey and his colleagues at Ann Arbor published materials for the EMED twenty years ago, they documented 4,400 words that antedate their first recorded OED occurrence, or that are not in the dictionary at all. Schäfer's work on the Elizabethan glossaries recently compiled a somewhat larger number of corrections and additions. This work has apparently not cast doubt on the reliability of the OED generally.

However, Bailey worried that historical dictionaries like the OED "have seldom recognized that the linguistic domain is paralleled by a systematic pattern of beliefs and attitudes that intersect with language and influence its use and history" and that Fries' section on comments would have in part supplied. Bailey went on to say that Fries' emphasis on "ambiguous senses" point to "indeterminacy of sense as the crucial issue that must be left unresolved" in any dictionary truly faithful to this period. The OED, of course, does not include many illustrative quotations that are ambiguous. Like most modern dictionaries, it resolves problems and arranges definitions into fixed senses; that is, it employs what are called, in the lexicographers' trade, referential definitions. These contain "the general class (category) and [...] those relevant (distinctive, criterial) features that differentiate the given referent ('thing, concept being defined') from the other members of the same class" (Benson, Benson & Ilson 1986: 204). Recently Herbert Pilch (1988: 137) has described lexical indeterminacy in modern English by appealing to synonyms such as prison, jail and penitentiary -- he calls the first a routine word and the other two members of "more specialized satellite words with highly variable denotations and connotations" -- and suggests that ordinary speakers disagree on them. These ambiguous terms can neither be excluded from a dictionary nor be defined in only distinct ways.

Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755 popularized the notion of fixed-sense definition in English. Many of his word-entries were followed by different defined senses, each exclusive of one other. There was no room for examples that were "ambiguous" and that had to be left "unresolved". As Johnson said in his preface, "The solution of all difficulties [...] must be sought in the examples, subjoined to the various senses of each word." Note that this is the first citation recorded in the OED for sense (sb. 19) in its lexical definition as "A meaning recorded in a dictionary, etc." To purify the language of the tribe, as T.S. Eliot later said, meant that its words be defined unambiguously, even if polysemic. Modern lexicographers tend to accept Johnson's "solution", which was to use the example as the way to "define" the fixed senses each word-form had. Lexicographers admit that lexical indeterminacy exists, but it is anathema to their task.

The question I want to pose here is whether early Renaissance English dictionaries give us reason to believe that Shakespeare and his contemporaries employed, or even understood, the idea of referential definition or fixed senses as practiced by the OED and most other modern dictionaries. In other words, when Renaissance speakers thought about the meaning of a word like timber, did they regard it as an abstraction from experience? Was it a category, with various essential features, to which many similar things in the world belonged, and did it, the word timber, always refer to things that may or may not have been thought to share that same category and those essential features?

3. What Renaissance Dictionaries Tell us about Lexical Meaning

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's great contemporary, could take or leave scholars. He took them when, by performing his plays, they paid the playing company to which he belonged, the King's Men, for a performance and so ushered him as a modern into the company of the ancients they studied. His play Volpone, for example, is dedicated to both Oxford and Cambridge "for their love and acceptance shown to this poem in the presentation". Possessing some knowledge of Latin and Greek, unlike Shakespeare, Jonson could be equally unfriendly to learning when it displeased him, as (most particularly) did scholarly studies of language and literature. He writes:

It was well noted by the late L. St. Alban [Francis Bacon, in his Essays], that the study of words is the first distemper of learning: vain matter the second: and a third distemper is deceit, or the likeness of birth; imposture held up by credulity. All these are cobwebs of learning, and to let them grow in us, is either sluttish or foolish. (Jonson, Timber [1640-1]: 412)

When Bacon and Jonson claim that "the study of words" is an equal partner, with bad thinking and falsification, in bad scholarship, they have those in mind who analyze words rather than those who read them, use them in speech and writing, or translate them. Their attitude to word-mongering as one of the idols of the tribe stems from an assumption, common in the Renaissance, that things can be studied, but that words are just servants to the things they denote or describe. There is little doubt that both men would have agreed that things could be analyzed in terms of categories and essential features. The question is, would either have thought that words obtain their meaning this way? Were words prescribed certain roles by philosophy and science?

Like their contemporaries, Bacon and Jonson did not have English reference dictionaries, only bilingual or "hard-word" dictionaries. These invariably give words that are equivalent to other words (whether by virtue of being synonyms or translations), not analytic definitions of the category and essential features of the thing which they denote in nature. The word dictionary occurs first in 1538, when Sir Thomas Elyot popularized the term in the title of his Latin-English bilingual dictionary. More than a dozen bilingual works for French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh followed before the end of the century, and they overtly give word-equivalences or translations for their words. I infer from this unanimity that most persons alive at this time would not have understood the question, "what does this word mean?", as anything other than a request for a translation, an etymology, or a gesture pointing to something in the world denoted by that word.

Robert Cawdrey published, in 1604, the first lexical reference work to serve English alone, and he seems not to have known what he should call it. Cawdrey's descriptive title reads:

A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true vvriting, and vnderstanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French. &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons.

Cawdrey adapted the method of translation -- providing English equivalents for foreign words -- to explain English "hard words". While he uses the term "understand" and writes of "interpretation", he does not give referential definitions of the kind we find in most dictionaries today. To Cawdrey and his contemporaries, word-books were either guides to word-substitution, comprising foreign-language word entries, alphabetically organized, followed by corresponding English words, phrases or sentences, or they were lists of spellings (as we find in Mulcaster's work). Nowhere does Cawdrey give any indication that his words provide thorough, logical, and spare explanations of things.

Thus when Renaissance Londoners like Jonson and Bacon went to a dictionary to discover the meaning of a word, it was always an unfamiliar word, rendered in easier English words. If we accept that these early dictionaries, as a group, express in their practice what Renaissance people thought word-meaning was, then we have to rule out referential definition and fixed senses from the start. If words were not constrained by reference to the category and essential features of the things they denoted, then lexical indeterminancy itself ceases to be a problem. It would have been so utterly a fact of language life that no one would have realized that word usage was indeterminate. The possibility of lexical determinancy never rose. Further, if Renaissance speakers did not think that words had fixed senses, OED definitions for EME words are anachronistic in method of definition. This idea appears so audacious, even if evident in the way in which dictionaries of the period were written, that surely there must be a mistake.

Locke gives the earliest citation in the OED entry for definition (of words) in sense no. 3 ("Logic, etc. The action of defining, or stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means"; my italics). In the 1690s, Locke said: "Definition being nothing but making another understand by Words, what Idea the Term defin'd stands for" (Hum. Unders. III.iii§). Earlier examples in the OED and MED (e.g., diffinicioun n.) appear to use the term definition either logically (the categorization and differentiation of a "thing", not of a word whose meaning is the category and essential features of that thing) or lexically in a non-referential sense (the translation of one sign by another sign). The implication, from evidence in the OED itself, is that speakers of Renaissance English did not think about defining words, just about defining things.

I accordingly surveyed the MED, the OED and 15 dictionaries from 1500 to 1658 to see how they used words like meaning, sense, and definition. Here are some examples:

The diffinicion of the office that belongithe to the senate. And whiche terme senate is as moche for to say a companie of aged men assembled togither. [ca. 1475 (? ca. 1451) Bk. Noblesse 62 (MED, diffinicioun, 2a)]

Sub-Title, A verye brefe diffinition of these wordes, Hoc est corpus meum. [Wyclif's Wycket, ca. 1500 (OED, definition, 4b: "A declaration or formal explanation of the signification of a word or phrase. [Not recognized by Johnson]")]

Definitio, definitionis, a definition, whyche expresseth in fewe wordes, what it is that is spoken of, as, Homo est animal, rationale, mortale, A man is a thyng lyuely, resonable, and mortalle. (Elyot 1538)

A definition of a word is any maner of declaration of a word. [T. Wilson's Logike 14 (OED, definition, 4b. "A declaration or formal explanation of the signification of a word or phrase. [Not recognized by Johnson]")]

Definitio, onis, f.g. verb. A definition, which in fewe wordes expresseth what it is that is spoken of: a declaring or specifying. (Thomas Thomas, 1587)

Persona, a person, a personage of man or woman, a bodie, a wight. It is defined of some to be the qualitie or state wherby one man differeth from another. Also a false face, as a vizard or masking face, an image, an appearance. also a charge or office, a maiestie. Also a part in a play. (Florio, 1611)

Definition, (lat.) an explication or unfolding of the essence of a thing by its genus and difference. (Edward Phillips, 1658; my italics)

Passages from Wyclif and Elyot, and probably the Bk. Noblesse, indicate that definition involves translation, in these instances from the Latin words senatus, Hoc est corpus meum, and Homo est animal, rationale, mortale. Thomas Wilson associates definition with any declaration (presumably including translation, but evidently quite unconstrained and unfixed), and Thomas Thomas stresses that the nature of the link between word and thing could be settled in but few words. Florio uses the word define elsewhere in this dictionary to translate Italian words associated with decision-making or specifying something (e.g., circonscriuere, decisione, and terminare) rather than describing the meaning of words. Phillips does not mention that referential definitions could be employed with words.

Occurrences of the words sense and meaning have a similar frame of reference. MED analyzes the verb menen in the context of figural interpretation (not referential definition), and sense as general interpretation. John Palsgrave's book on the French language (1530), which has large tables of verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc., first in English sentences and then in French translations, distinguishes between literal translation and a general explanation expressing the "sence".

And thirdly by cause thoughe we gyue worde for worde out of our tong into theyrs/ yet we shall nat expresse the sence that they mean in theyr tong/ whiche thyng somthynge here in a generalte to expresse I shall co[n]sequently shewe the different vse betwene vs and them thorowe all theyr .ix. partes of speche. (Palsgrave, 1530, C4v)

Palsgrave apparently means, not that words have fixed senses, but rather that they do not, for he says that translation of an utterance in a foreign tongue must rely, not on individual words, but instead on some understanding of meaning that rises above the constraints of the meaning of individual words, whatever that may be. The phrase "worde for worde" suggests that words mean by being equivalent to other words, not that their meaning arises from issues of categories and features.

Thomas Thomas (for Latin) and Randle Cotgrave (for French) use the terms meaning and interpretation as equivalent to translation:

Interpretatio, onis, f.g. verb. An interpretation or meaning, a translation: also iudgement, coniecture, Liv. (Thomas Thomas 1587)

Calepinages: m. Dictionaries.
Calepiner. To interprete, or translate, exactly, or word by word.
Calepinerie: f. A true, iust, and precise interpretation, or translation of euery single word.
Interpreter. To interpret, expound; translate, shew the meaning, tell the signification, of. (Cotgrave 1611)

Florio (for Italian) associates word meaning with denotation and etymology, as can be seen in the following entries:

Denotare, to denote, to shew, to meane, to signifie.
Denotatione, a denotation or meaning.
Etimologo, he that searcheth out the true interpretation of words.
Verilóquio, the true exposition of a word, an ethimologie or right meaning of word, a true tale, speech or report.
Vocabolo, a word, a name, a terme, a denomination of any thing.

Here words routinely appear to name things ("denomination") and in themselves are subject to an interpretation or "exposition" that gives only a word's origin, that is, the word from which it comes. Florio rarely uses the noun sence, but it appears under the lemma Fare le forche:

Fare le forche, to know a thing and to dissemble the knowledge thereof. Also to blame one when one should praise him, vsed in both these sences. [my italics]

This use of sence suggests denotation, what we observe or experience, but Florio clearly sees multiple senses or meanings as possible, though whether fixed is hard to say. Consider then his explanation of the Italian word for sence:

Senso, the sence of man. Also wit, reason, conceite, or vnderstanding, feeling, sence, perceiuing, iudgement, knowledge, opinion, that which one hath conceiued in minde, that which is known by sence. Also the sence or meaning of any writing.

The apparent equivalence of sence and meaning, and Florio's association of the second word with denotation and etymology, noted above, indicates that referential definition is not behind these uses of sence.

Some Renaissance writers were perhaps aware of referential definition of words, that is, fixed senses. When Richard Mulcaster in 1582 urges his contemporaries to "gather all the words which we vse in our English tung" into a single dictionary that would give "the right writing" (spelling) as well as "open vnto vs therein, both their naturall force, and their proper vse", he may have fixed senses in mind when he speaks of the "forces" that words have (166-7). In 1649 George Snell also called for the making of a uniform lexicon of English words with "clear and complete definitions, embracing the original, derived, and figurative meanings of words" (quoted by Jones 1953: 295). More important, the hostility of Bacon and Jonson to studies of what words were (rather than for their equivalences in other languages, or the qualities of those things they stood for) shows that, at least from 1600, some persons -- perhaps etymologists like Mynsheu in Ductor Linguas -- treated words as if they were things or analyzed words as if they were.

4. An Example: the Word timber

The word timber may belong to the "concrete" words reportedly not well described by the OED, but at first glance the over 280 dictionary entries mentioning this word contribute only antedatings and unnoted combinations to the OED entry. The antedatings are two:

timber-oak (OED 2, timber, sb. 1, 9; dated 1707). "In vaine doth any man in forrests poake, that takes a dotard for a timber-oake" (Cotgrave, marrein, 1611)

floor-timber (OED 2, floor, sb. 1, 15; dated 1627). "the beames, or floore-timbers, of a ship; the great pieces of timber that lye from side to side, within the Hould" (Cotgrave, baus, 1611)

In addition, there are four phrases unnoted in the OED:

black timber: "Blacke Timber, good for many purposes" (Cockeram, ebonie, 1623); "Oken trees, or timber, which hauing bin long orewhelmed in water, are become as black as Ebony" (Cotgrave, bois, 1611)

cross timber: "the coueryng of an herber with crosse tymber or poles, such as is vsed to beare vp the vynes ouer an aley" (W. Thomas, pergolato, 1550)

timber sellers: "A Wood-mongers, or Tymber-sellers, yard" (Cotgrave, chantier, 1611)

timber-vault (cf. OED 2, timbre, tymber, sb. 2): "A Lanterne; also, the scutcheon, or closure of a Tymber vault, where the ends of the branches thereof doe meet" (Cotgrave, lanterne, 1611)

This information does not question the assumptions of the OED but only supplies missing details.

Yet a comparison of the kinds of 'definitions' in the early dictionaries with those fixed senses in the OED entry for this word that are relevant to the Renaissance period (see Figure 1) does question whether referential definition, and the fixed senses it entails, are native to the early period. OED definitions 2 and 3 are abstract, wordy, and generalized when compared to the concrete, concise, and specific treatment of timber within the Cotgrave and Thomas explanations of mareschaucées and materia. They define words as if they denote things in the world that are to be handled or seen: "stuffe to build withall" and "the body of the tree vnder the barke" appeal to the world of the senses. In contrast, the OED specifies little in "the matter or substance of which anything is built up or composed" or "Wood used for the building of houses, ships, etc." The definition in OED fixed sense 4.a, "the wood of growing trees capable of being used for structural purposes", is equally unhelpful to anyone having to select trees for timber, but Cotgrave and Thomas name trees that are and are not valuable as timber. The OED definition tells us no more and no less than is necessary to work out how timber can be identified, but it denotes nothing in the forest. The same unworldiness characterizes fixed senses 5-6. They specify objects without character (including many things other than what Renaissance people had in mind for the word, but let that pass),[5] while William and Thomas Thomas name things that can be touched and pointed to, unambiguously. A reasonable inference from these examples is that they thought words 'meant' by virtue of denoting things in the world, not by virtue of being shorthand for (as Philips says) the "genus and difference" of those things.

Figure 2 lists, by part of speech or function, words that collocate with timber in the early dictionaries. These contexts illuminate the word with a vividly descriptive, image-rich vocabulary almost completely absent from the OED definitions in Figure 1. Only two of the 47 verbs with which timber appears as an object (build and square), and none of the adjectives, can be found in the OED senses. These early dictionaries are written as if words were best explained by identifying them with, or in the context of, things in the living world that people can experience every day. There is little evidence that these early lexicographers thought of general classes and select, distinctive features or of a semantics that exists, conceptually, apart from the everyday world into which the Renaissance citizen was born, lived, and died.


5. Conclusion

Let me now recapitulate. Those books called dictionaries, up to the eighteenth century, explain words generally by giving equivalent words (synonyms, translations). The early lexicographers, on having to explain words like definition, meaning, and sense, refer to translation, etymology, and denotation, and only mention what we know of as referential definition when they refer to things (not words). These men do recognize multiple possible interpretations for words, but an examination of a single word, timber, as interpreted by both the early dictionaries and the OED, reveals pervasive differences in treatment. The OED entries are generalized and abstract, while the earlier works are rich with descriptive detail, as if they are pointing to or denoting real things rather than representing categories or qualities.

My working conclusion, for the time being, is that referential definition is an anachronistic concept in the English Renaissance and that, far from being mere sources of supplementary information for the OED, early dictionaries offer the best approach to EME word meaning that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have understood. EME words had fundamentally only three dimensions. They came from words with which they may or may not be equivalent (etymology); they had equivalents in their own language and in others (synonyms, translation); and they pointed to things, qualities, or concepts experienced in the real world by the speaker. Thinkers and authors categorized things in the world but did not argue that language could or should reflect their logical thinking. Words were labels for the world, but when the world changed, words seldom did, simply because it was not necessary for them to change. If we want to understand what English meant in the Renaissance, we must understand the world it experienced daily.

The problem of lexical indeterminacy goes away. If there are no fixed senses in the first place, there is nothing lexical in a word that is determinable. The lexical problem gives away to one of understanding human purpose and the world in which it operates. A word, denoting some object, state, quality, or experience in nature, is not tied to a single semantic class (being thus 'determined') or to multiple ones (being thus 'undetermined') but is bound instead to things in the world by the person who uses the word and by the circumstances of its usage. For Shakespeare, words would not have been indeterminate, rather the things that they denoted.

A Renaissance dictionary true to its period, and helpful to us, should not only show which words are equivalent to each lemma, and from which word or words the lemma was thought to come (never mind where it actually came from: that is irrelevant in a period dictionary), but it should also describe and depict, preferably with pictures, the things then denoted by those words. Things defined should not be confused with words defined. Renaissance speakers would not have needed the pictures and might have been puzzled by the need for logical definitions of things. They already understood generally which words denoted which range of things. Linguistic untidiness, where words overlap one another in denoting things in the world, did not trouble them. We are the ones who need the pictures, for the Renaissance world is dead and gone, replaced by strata upon strata of new worlds in which things have changed while the words we rely on to label them have not. This kind of dictionary would not help 'fix' the senses of Renaissance vocabulary; the very idea opens the flood-gates to lexical indeterminacy and may 'unfix' some accepted critical interpretations of major authors of the period. Yet I believe that this new prototype dictionary would be useful in reflecting back to readers alive today only how English of the time was employed, independently of how we regard it from our own perspective four centuries later.


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Ian Lancashire (University of Toronto)





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