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A Labor of Love

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

Seventy-one years in the making, the Middle English Dictionary is complete. The final volume, number thirteen, appeared this summer, and its editor, Robert Lewis, describes himself as nothing less than “jubilant.”

The dictionary covers the English language from the Norman Conquest to the advent of printing, or from roughly 1100 to 1500 A.D.

“We don’t claim to have covered every bit of Middle English,” says Lewis, who has been the editor for the last nineteen years. “We hope we are as complete as can be, giving all forms we know about.” Lewis is modest: the dictionary contains more than 55,000 entries and 900,000 quotations, and provides examples of usage along with each word’s definition. The completed version is 15,000 pages long, based on millions of citation slips yielded from 150 years of collection. An accompanying electronic version will be put online.

The Middle English Dictionary (MED) is a tool for two groups of scholars: those interested in the Middle Ages and those involved in producing modern dictionaries. “For the scholar of the Middle Ages, the MED is as comprehensive as can be, because we use data from all genres including astronomical, medical, documentary, and literary,” says Lewis, who is a Middle English language scholar and professor at the University of Michigan. For makers of dictionaries, the MED provides extensive etymologies and text quotations that antedate those in other dictionaries. Many quotations are taken from sources that were previously inaccessible, such as the 1121 Peter Borough Chronicle.

Since 1980 the Endowment has supported the MED and in 1997 began funding the creation of an electronic version of the dictionary that includes the entire contents of the printed version, supplemented with source information and a text collection of Middle English prose and verse. The online dictionary can be searched for all the occurrences of a term, quotation, or author, which facilitates the process of locating, for example, medical terminology or quotations from Chaucer relating to astronomy. Quotations are hyperlinked, permitting users to jump to the online version of the original text with one click.

According to the project director of the electronic MED, John Price-Wilkin, its Middle English prose and verse collection is already the largest available.

“With such a large body of source material available online,” says Price-Wilkin, “scholars can get very authoritative sources and links to texts for fuller reading. It’s an immense body of material. It is also possible to do searches of words by dialect and geographic area.”

Lewis agrees that the online version is a boon to scholars and envisions it being used more than the print version. “You can ask it questions you can’t ask the print version.”

The MED covers the most formative period in the history of the English language. It was during this period that the language changed from a Germanic tongue to one that borrowed significantly from French and Latin; by the end of the era it resembled modern English. “If you look at Old English, the language looked the same in the early period and the late period,” says Lewis. “But with Middle English, it looked like Old English in the early period and like Modern English in the late period.”

“Languages change all the time,” he explains. “The invention of printing in the early 1470s standardized language, leading to Modern English with standardized spellings. As English developed, meanings of words proliferated and divided, with more meanings and more subtleties.”

Lewis uses the example of the word “deer.” In early quotations deer means “wild animal.” In the later period, the meaning is narrowed down from any wild animal to a specific one. “As with any other language, you find a generalized meaning becomes divided later on into more meanings, more subtle meanings,” he says.

Languages change over time as they come into contact with other languages, and English was greatly influenced by French and Latin after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. “When the Normans came to England they brought sophisticated notions of food,” Lewis says. “Mutton is not a native English word for sheep. It developed that sheep is not what you serve, mutton is. The native word means the animal in the field, and the French word, the animal that is served at the table.”

The inspiration for a comprehensive dictionary of Middle English came in 1919 from William Craigie, the third editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), when he proposed the creation of three dictionaries to extend and supplement the OED. Craigie suggested separate dictionaries covering Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English. The Dictionary of Old English is currently being compiled at the University of Toronto with support from NEH. Work on the Early Modern English lexicon stopped in 1939 when the data was returned to Oxford and its information incorporated into the OED.

Systematic work on the MED began in 1930 when materials were transferred to the University of Michigan from Cornell University, where some work had been done from 1925 to 1930 under the auspices of the Modern Language Association of America.

“At that time, OED donated to the project all its Middle English materials, both those used in its published volumes and those omitted—about half a million citation slips,” says Lewis. “That formed the nucleus of our work.”

Efforts to produce the MED began with an extensive reading program to supplement the original collection of citations. The work of the first two editors, Samuel Moore and Thomas A. Knott, coincided with the Depression and World War II, which limited funds and staff.

The next editor, Hans Kurath, who led the project from 1946 until 1961, was the first to publish. He devised an ambitious editorial program, and editing began in a systematic way. Kurath’s plan, which has served as a guideline for his successors, consisted of writing definitions in the briefest form possible, using quotations extensively, and giving all known variations in spellings, grammatical forms, and dialects. “Kurath’s aim was to be as thorough and complete as possible, providing as many quotations as possible,” says Lewis.

Under the guidance of Kurath and his successor Sherman Kuhn, whose editorial tenure lasted from 1961 until 1983, the MED was published in fascicles, the first of which appeared in 1952.

By the end of 1974 the MED was published through the middle of the letter M. Until then the University of Michigan had been the main source of funding for the MED, but that year the project received a grant from the Mellon Foundation, enabling it to hire more full-time editors and move at a faster pace.

Robert Lewis joined the staff as co-editor with Kuhn in 1982 and became editor a year later when Kuhn retired. Lewis says that when the search committee was looking for a new editor to replace Kuhn, he was the youngest candidate considered. “At the time the committee thought the dictionary would be finished much sooner,” he says. “I was just in my forties, and the other candidates were all about ten years older than I. If they had hired someone else he probably would have retired before completion.” Lewis had been teaching courses at Indiana University on medieval literature, the history of language, and medieval dialects.

Lewis and Kuhn shared the same goals for the MED: to be as thorough and complete as possible with the data available. Lewis, however, faced constant pressure to finish. By this time NEH had joined the Mellon Foundation in providing funding, and by the early eighties, the staff had begun using computers. Even so, it would take Lewis nineteen years to see the dictionary completed.

The editorial and review process each entry undergoes is rigorous. Each editor works with a box containing four thousand citation slips. A box normally contains a number of words, but in the case of commonly used words, it might contain only one. The editor does the bulk of the work, looking through the slips, analyzing them for meaning, classifying groups of meanings, writing definitions, and including quotations to illustrate the definitions. A reviewer compares each entry with other entries and makes changes. At the end of the process Lewis reviews all the entries for completeness, ensuring that etymologies are full and spellings are complete.

Prior to 1982 each entry was typed and retyped as it was edited. Computers have helped speed up parts of that process, but are not used in the course of the actual editing. “It just doesn’t work,” says Lewis. “Someone has to go through each slip by hand.” Entries are put on computer after the review stage. Computers have helped greatly with cross-referencing variant spellings, ordering entries alphabetically, and proofreading.

The online version of the MED has been a great help to the editors of the print version. “We have used it on the last few letters to find things in the print text,” says Lewis. For example, he says, the online MED makes it possible to find all the instances of compound terms such as “ice water.”

Even a simple verb such as “to take” requires painstaking effort to trace all of its variants -- it is the longest entry in the dictionary, covering fifty pages. “We had to include all the combinations such as ‘take in,’ ‘take up,’ ‘take out,’ and divide them by meaning,” says Lewis. “It took the editor a very long time, and the reviewer a full year to finish.” Even so, Lewis believes that seventy-one years to reach completion “is not slow for a historical dictionary.”

For Lewis, it has been a labor of love. The time pressures aside, the actual work has been a joy to him. “Sherman Kuhn used to say he never met a word he didn’t like,” says Lewis, who says he feels the same way. His chief interest is etymology and the entries he found the most interesting were those that required the most research.

Dictionaries during the Middle Ages were usually created to define words of foreign origin, particularly Latin words. The first English-Latin dictionary, Promptorium Parvulorum, compiled around 1440, is an important resource for the MED, which quotes it 9,000 times. It is a collection of 12,000 English words, many accompanied by synonyms and followed by their Latin counterparts.

A milestone was reached with Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published in two volumes in 1755, which comprises 40,000 entries and took him nine years to complete. In addition to etymologies and definitions, Johnson provides examples of usage drawn from what he considered the “golden age” of the English language -- from 1560 to 1710. Johnson’s basis for including words and authors was entirely subjective: he excluded writers he deemed immoral, and defined words according to his political and religious beliefs. His dictionary contains conspicuous omissions -- the word “literary” is one -- but delineates the nuances of other words meticulously, allotting “take” 134 entries and “set” ninety. Some of Johnson’s better-known glosses are tongue-in-cheek barbs or quips: he defines oats as “a grain, which in English is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people” and a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”

Until now the most widely used dictionary of Middle English has been Henry Bradley’s A Middle-English Dictionary, published in 1891 by Clarendon Press. It served as a resource for the MED, supplying text references for additional quotations. There were few complete historical dictionaries until the 1897 publication of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now called the Oxford English Dictionary. According to Lewis, Middle English words comprise roughly 10 percent of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The MED has been called “the greatest achievement in medieval scholarship in America” by A .J. Atken, the editor of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, and Morton Bloomfield, professor of English at Harvard University, calls it the “most important single project . . . in English historical lexicography being carried out anywhere today.” Its completion is a landmark in the study of the English language. “It won’t ever have to be redone, at least not from scratch,” says Lewis. The dictionary will be corrected and supplemented in the online version.

“It’s been in my life for nineteen years,” says Lewis. “I have mixed emotions—nostalgic that is has come to an end, but I’m also feeling terrific it has come to an end -- a good end. I hope people will find it as full and informative as we hoped it would be.”

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The University of Michigan has received $3,656,391 in NEH funds for The Middle English Dictionary and $325,000 for the electronic version.