The Reappearing Dictionary

21 May 2015

By Pan Macmillan

As far as I was concerned, Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary had indeed disappeared. I remember dipping into it when I was an undergraduate at University College London, but hadn't seen it since. Then, a few years ago, while browsing the shelves of Francis Edwards' marvellous antiquarian bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, during the Hay Festival, I found it. Six beautifully bound maroon volumes, in excellent condition, despite having had many owners. It cost me £350, and was worth every penny.

How do I know about the owners? Because they left their mark. Every so often I would find a bookmark – an envelope with an address on it (and a 1/2 d stamp), a cutting from a local newspaper, an invitation card to a charity event for Dr Barnardo's Homes ('A reply intimating attendance would be a favour'), a dried fragment of a pressed flower. But most interesting of all, the books were full of dialect marginalia. There was a postcard from someone called Mabel in 1926 recording part of a conversation she'd had with a blacksmith at Blakeney in Norfolk, with the local words underlined. And every now and then somebody suggests a word that Wright had missed, or adds a comment along the lines of 'people still use this word around here'. Piecing together the bits of evidence, in the manner of an archaeodialectologist, I worked out that the remarks had been made by owners in the 1940s. It made me think: are any of these words still in use today?

I had never intended to read the whole thing. The six volumes comprise just under 5000 pages and explain around 117,500 word-senses. But the stories of the words were so engrossing that I couldn't stop. A dialect dictonary is not just a word-book. It is a window into social history. And alongside the expected pronunciations, spellings, etymologies, and definitions, Wright gives us anecdotes and quotations that provide a fascinating insight into 19th-century life and times.

So I did read the whole thing, and in so doing the remarkable scale of Wright's painstaking 23-year project came home to me. It was a landmark in English dialect study, as important in its way as the Dictionary of the previous great lexicographer, Samuel Johnson. But, I wondered, why is there such a difference between the two personalities? Johnson's memory is celebrated every year at his tomb in Westminster Abbey. There is a Johnson Society that holds an annual commemorative dinner in Lichfield. Wright has never had such a level of recognition. It's time he did.

I know only one way to celebrate someone's memory, and that is to write a book about them. I included the story of Wright's Yorkshire origins in the linguistic travelogue I wrote with Hilary Crystal, Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-language Tourist's Guide to Britain, but that book was more biographical than linguistic. You get only a hint of the Dictionary contents there. I decided to compile an anthology of some of the 
most appealing entries, and The Disappearing Dictionary was the result.

My selection is tiny, compared with the work as a whole, but it's quite representative. And it allows me to ask the intriguing question that the previous owners of my 6-volume set asked: 'Are any of these words still in use?' If they are, I'll soon be told, for every county has its language enthusiasts, and the Internet makes it so easy to share discoveries. And if they're not, perhaps the renewed attention will give some of them a new lease of life. Words resurrected. That would be a memorial indeed.