From Notes & Queries, New Series, Vol 22, No 4, April, 1975, pp 146-155

Comments by Professor R.I.Page

Principally concerning a report on the DOE conference, Toronto, September, 1970


"In the rather confused pages of its report lurk some thoughtful remarks ... [which] reveal a fascinating geographical dichotomy. Many of the New World scholars were excited by the technology of the computer and by its associated language. ... Most of the scholars of the Old World on the other hand showed something of the traditional pragmatism of British philosophy." pp 146-147.

"In the present report are errors that need correction but which the methods defined by the Toronto scholars are unlikely to trace." p 151.

"The dictionary editors will often need more information about a word in its manuscript setting than this volume plans to give them, if they are to decide wisely about usage and meaning." p 152

"All of these [editors], no doubt, are scholars of repute, but they hardly represent the full range of experience that must be called on to produce such a dictionary." p 152.

"The editors give a few specimen entries for their dictionary. On their evidence the Toronto dictionary is going to be a feast of fine confused reading." p 153.

"The explanation of meaning, which Johnson thought the essential task of the dictionary ... gets [short] shrift: 'We would prefer to aim for generosity of citation and reference than extreme complexity of semantic analysis'. [See below.] The result is something of a Do-It-Yourself dictionary." p 153.

"It is hard to dispel the suspicion that the editors will achieve, not a dictionary, but a quarry for future Ph.D. students to exploit." p 153.

"The specimen entries are not exactly wrong but are misleading, confused, or at any rate questionable, where the words do not certainly fit the categories they are put in." p 154.

"There are so many cases of ambiguity ... that the Toronto editors must surely face the problem." p 154.

"Should they not rethink their policy, and judge whether the wealth of quotations they provide justifies their abdication of the responsibility of examining meanings carefully and even in detail?" p 154.

"Where the editors of this volume have gone astray is in calling it a plan for a dictionary, which suggests that the organization is more complete, the thought more clearly worked out than it is." p 154.

"On the evidence of the present plan it seems more likely that the new dictionary will resemble the English language in its unreformed pre-Johnsonian condition, 'copious without order, and energetick without rules'". p 155.


My first acquaintance with the DOE can be precisely dated to 9/10/09. R.I.Page's comments were not discovered until the end of February, 2010. During the intervening four month period my dismay at what I was finding out about the DOE had been steadily growing, so what Page had said about the DOE plan thirty-five years earlier was nothing less than a revelation. Let's pick out some of Page's points.

"Pragmatism": ie "treatment of things, esp. in history, with regard to causes and effects." Cassell CED, 1989.
"Need more information about a word in its manuscript setting."
"To decide wisely about usage and meaning."
"A feast of fine confused reading."
"The explanation of meaning ... gets [short] shrift."
"Not a dictionary, but a quarry."
"The words do not certainly fit the categories they are put in."
"Abdication of the responsibility of examining meanings carefully."
"Copious without order, and energetick without rules."

How can an academic enterprise such as this claim to be constructing a dictionary, when it abdicates its responsibility of examining meanings, specifically in their manuscript contexts? This is its most lamentable failing. Call it a compilation or a concordance, not a dictionary. Call it an undictionary. Call it a quarry. A monument to artless industry. Call it a word-hoard, or even a word-horde. Few self-respecting American scholars will use five words where fifty will do, and the elevation of quantity above quality sets the New World apart from the Old. After all, that's what democracy is: it may be the least bad form of government, but where truth is concerned one may be sure that the majority is always wrong.

As the enormity of its disregard of semantics, and the etymologies of the words it lists, begins to sink in, the impact is jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, mind-numbing. A particularly interesting point made by Page is the distinction he draws between the "New World" and the "Old World" scholars, and the dichotomy between them. Perhaps this dichotomy can be traced back to the American patriot and "Father of American Scholarship and Education", Noah Webster, 1758-1843, and the deliberately divisive thrust of his industrious lexicography.

The result, to steal a sentence just heard on the radio in connection with a religious dispute, is that we "are using the same vocabulary but not the same dictionary": or, as I'd already formulated it, "we are using the same English words, but speaking a different language". As time goes on, New World academic texts become more and more baffling, at least to an Old World student. Particularly to one who believes himself educated to take account of the last 2,000 years of European history, and instinctively recoils from the bizarre assumption that civilization began in 1789.

"I knew that the work in which I engaged is generally considered as drudgery for the blind, as the proper toil of artless industry; a task that requires neither the light of learning, nor the activity of genius, but may be successfully performed without any higher quality than that of bearing burdens with dull patience, and beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution". "Of all the candidates for literary praise ... the unhappy lexicographer holds the lowest place". What a contrast between the Great Cham's solitary "Plan of an English Dictionary" and the "Plan for the Dictionary of Old English" devised by Toronto's small army of scholars. Prudent humility and reckless hubris, side by side. Johnson's definition of a writer of dictionaries was "a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

After eight years Johnson's achievement was hailed by Alexander Pope. Johnson, he wrote: "well-armed like a hero of yore, has beat forty French and will beat forty more!" Forty-seven scholars are listed as "members of the conference" in the 1973 report. Forty-six of these, of repute no doubt, were Anglo-Americans. Did these "represent the full range of experience that must be called on to produce such a dictionary? In Humanities, January/February 2010, a major spokesperson for the DOE "ran through a number of eminently persuasive arguments" for producing the work, and then "added, almost as an afterthought: Plus, its our language." The Anglo-Saxon language, however, does not belong first to Anglo-American scholars, but to Scandinavians, Germans, Dutchmen and Icelanders. At the very least, the range of experience should include a wide spectrum of toilers handling these languages as natives. See here, for instance.

On p 333 of its 347 pages the Plan for the Dictionary gets to the core of the matter: "Senses and Citations". The paragraph below addresses the heart of the dictionary. The previous 332 pages might have been devoted to it.

From A Plan for the Dictionary of Old English, published 1973
it's "difficult to plan in advance"

A sentiment to relish

"Anyone who thinks that a discipline of knowledge [whether Old English studies or anything else] survives and thrives primarily because of the codification and rigid maintenance of certain types of content and methodological protocols, sadly does not see that it is those few often isolated [and even lonely] figures who are willing to give birth to what Foucault called 'monstrous thought' who actually move a discipline forward and keep it 'alive'." Eileen Joy.

"For works that are truly original --- and therefore worth translating --- statistical machine translation hasn't got a hope." I Translator, by David Bellos. NY Times, March 10, 2010

The entry provided by the DOE for eg anfloga is not just bad. It is intellectually irresponsible, and actually appalling.


Back to Anfloga & Wearn.


timor mortis conturbat me


Anfloga & Wearn, again
The Cambridge Old English Reader
The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer. G.V.Smithers
The Meaning of Fer(h)
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
The prefix un- in Anglo-Saxon
Hugr, Hyge, Håg
biblical echoes
the central crux of the seafarer
re: unwearnum
visualizations of the anfloga
essays and papers

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2010
all rights reserved