Dog Eared

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On Genius, Madness and Lexicography

Joshua Kendall, who we interview this week about his book The Man Who Made Lists, is captivated by the divine madness that drives lexicographers. He's following up his current biography of Peter Roget with a study of the similarly obsessive Noah Webster. We asked him for further reading on the fiery minds behind the masterpieces of word reference.

W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975.
Boswell's 20th century heir, Bate paints a vivid and sympathetic portrait of the troubled man and his numerous literary achievements, of which his A Dictionary of the English Language is just the most famous. "My health," Johnson wrote at seventy-two, "has been from my twentieth year such as has seldom afforded me a single day of ease."

Jonathon Green, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
Viewing lexicographers as deities rather than drudges, Green provides a readable history of dictionaries and their creators that goes back some 4,000 years.

K. M. Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words: James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
A thorough account of the creator of the OED by his granddaughter. Like other lexicographic heavyweights — most notably, Roget and Noah Webster — Murray was no fan of either introspection or biography. "It is one of the hateful characteristics of a degenerate age," he once wrote, "that the idle world will not let the worker alone, but must insist upon....really troubling itself a great deal more about his little peculiarities."

Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Following up on his 1998 megaseller, The Professor and the Madman, which focused on the relationship between James Murray and his criminally insane colleague, Dr. W. C. Minor, Winchester captures the grandiosity at the heart of lexicography.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 12th 2008, 3:40 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
The interview with Mr. Kendall is very interesting, but I wonder why Visual Thesaurus wrote, "Joshua Kendall, who we interview this week..."
Why don't you use whom instead of who? It is disappointing to see the English language being simplified in this way, especially by people who proclaim daily their love of language.
Thursday June 12th 2008, 7:13 AM
Comment by: Grant B.
Another story about a troubled person in the language fields is Richard Bailey's story of the murdering philologist: Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff.

Thursday June 12th 2008, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
To the anonymous commenter, and others who have written in to complain about "who we interview this week" in the first sentence...

This actually opens up a very interesting can of worms. Though many guides to standard English grammar will say that "whom" is obligatory in such contexts, syntacticians have described a new emerging standard of "who/whom" usage. Quoting my colleague Arnold Zwicky on Language Log (where I also contribute):

"There are two now-standard systems for distributing the variants 'who(ever)' vs. 'whom(ever)' in English: an older system (system A), prescribed (often sternly) by many authorities, in which the m-variants are used whenever the pronoun serves in the syntactic function of OBJECT (of a verb or preposition), and a more recent system (system B), in which 'who(ever)' is the default, with the m-variants used only when a WH pronoun not only serves in the object function, but also is in a phrase with its governing element (a preposition, in the most common situations): in system B, the m-variants are used only with fronted prepositions ('to whom')."
More here: .

So when it comes to "whom" usage we've got two battling systems at work. The battle is a contentious one and deserving of attention, so we're planning on opening up a debate on the subject here at VT in the near future. Stay tuned!

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