From the Archives: The Impossible Task of Creating a Truly Complete Dictionary

When Noah Webster undertook to make the primary American dictionary in 1806, he accomplished two letters of the alphabet earlier than discovering himself “so embarrassed at each step for need of data of the origin of phrases” that he halted and devoted 10 years to etymological research. In that point, he created the world’s most intensive comparability of root phrases so far, making appreciable use of the work of Samuel Johnson, who wrote the primary English dictionary. Up till 1890, all the final dictionaries had been constructed upon Johnson’s and Webster’s groundwork.

Publishers of the Century and the Customary each tried to create an unique, full dictionary. Each publishers, together with managing editors and different staffers, underwent intensive coaching for the duty. Within the fixing of tons of of kinds, within the ultimate figuring out of what to exclude and what to incorporate, within the devising of recent options and particularly within the making an attempt and discarding of innumerable strategies—lots of which weren’t disproved till they had been in print, and even forged into plates—time and cash had been expended nearly illimitably.

The editors and publishers of a dictionary are keenly conscious of the practically countless nature of their process. The hope of issuing the work on a specified date is deferred so usually that the chief editor of one in every of our nice dictionaries periodically reminded his associates that “one nice use of a dictionary is to get it printed.” Then, when the ebook is is­sued, it instantly begins to develop into imperfect and out of date.

The duty of creating an truly full dictionary has by no means been completed—neither is it more likely to. The Oxford English Dictionary, when accomplished, would be the closest to an entire English dictionary ever tried—however already there are millions of phrases within the letters printed which have since come to gentle or been coined for the reason that work was begun. Every time there’s a whole reprint manufactured from our current bigger dictionaries, it’s going to possible be discovered expedient and essential to drop an amazing many phrases now included to make room for brand spanking new candidates. This can be completed on the conclusion that for normal use, a dictionary needn’t be a phrase ebook of the language however relatively a lexicon of all of the phrases more likely to be needed by the common reader and author of English. 

This text initially appeared within the September 1903 difficulty of SUCCESS journal.

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