Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Most Influential Lexicographer You've Never Heard Of

My title this month assumes that you have heard of some lexicographer: you may, for example, have a reasonably accurate notion about what Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster did. But in general, those in our profession live, work, and die in obscurity. Johnson himself defined lexicographer as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words." Dictionaries come and go, along with the people who imagine them and bring them into being; only the definitions remain.

Lexicography is a calling for most of us who do it, but it is a stable and dependable livelihood for very few, and that number is ever dwindling because of the unprofitability (in the minds of publishers) of keeping lexicographers on permanent staff. For that reason, lexicography has been and continues to be a gig occupation for many who do it, and that is the case for the man I write about today: Charles Sanders Peirce. Cocktail party tip: his last name sounds like purse, not like pierce.

If you've heard of Peirce at all it's likely that one of his short works (the only kind he wrote) was among your readings in a university class in logic, philosophy, or linguistics. If you could time-travel back to Baltimore in the 1880s, you could even enjoy the privilege of having Peirce as your professor. But the window for that opportunity was short; Peirce was fired from the then-recently founded Johns Hopkins University after only a few years on trumped-up charges of adultery, for the sin of consorting with his soon-to-be second wife, long after he and the first wife had separated but not divorced. It's more likely that Peirce was booted from Hopkins because he wanted to shake up the philosophy department there in a way that the incumbents didn't like.

After his firing, Peirce was unable to obtain a university position and he lived the rest of his life in poverty, doing writing and other intellectual work wherever he could find it while never taking a break from his own wide-ranging reading and research. One place he found work was in writing definitions for the Century Dictionary, which may be the greatest dictionary you've never heard of. I gave a talk on Peirce's definitions for the Century last month at the conference of the Dictionary Society of North America at Indiana University. My focus was on how one of the greatest minds the United States has produced spent several years of his adult life in the mundane but all-consuming task of writing the definitions of ordinary and extraordinary words.

Why should you care about such a thing? If you poke around some of the more rarefied places on the internet, you'll get the idea pretty quickly. You might start, on a morning when you feel fully awake and alive, with Peirce's Theory of Signs. Have you ever wondered how words come to mean anything at all? How it is that by sending a stream of air through our vocal cords and modulating it by expert movements of our throat and mouth parts, we produce sounds that have a meaning and an effect on those who hear them? This is a question that Peirce answered, more satisfactorily and more definitively than anyone before or after him. There's a consensus that Peirce's greatest contribution to human thought was in semiotics, the study of signs as communicative devices that underlies major components in linguistics: that is, pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics. So the man that taught us how it is that words mean anything at all spent a lot of time in the trenches, wrestling with the very particular task of taking a word at a time and nailing down its meaning.

The original plan for Peirce and the Century was that he would be only a specialist contributor, writing definitions for words in the field of philosophy; a suitable assignment, since he was in fact a Harvard graduate in philosophy and a lecturer in it. But he was an eager and able definer, and that, combined with his desperate need for money, landed him the much broader assignment of writing definitions for words in logic, metaphysics, astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, weights and measures, universities, geodesy, religion, psychology and parapsychology, biology, chemistry, and even cocktails. In addition, he worked as a general editor of the Century and edited more definitions written by others than any other contributor. So it's not a far stretch to say that Peirce's imprint is all over the Century Dictionary.

Peirce was not a model definer of all words. He couldn't quite get outside of his own highly abstract thinking in some cases and more into the mind of the user. Some of his definitions of colors, for example, would have benefited from another editor's pruning. Here, for example, are his definitions of pink and violet:

Pink: A red color of low chroma but high luminosity, inclining toward purple.

Violet: A general class of colors, of which the violet flower is a highly chromatic example. In the spectrum the violet extends from h to H, covering all the upper part of the spectrum ordinarily visible. This color can be produced by a slight admixture of red to blue; and colors somewhat more red than the upper part of the spectrum are called violet. But the sensation of violet is produced by a pure blue whose chroma has been diminished while its luminosity has been increased. Thus, blue and violet are the same color, though the sensations are different. A mere increase of illumination may cause a violet blue to appear violet, with a diminution of apparent chroma. This color, called violet or blue according to the quality of the sensation it excites, is one of the three fundamental colors of Young's theory. It is nearly complementary to the color of brightness, so that deep shades generally appear by contrast of a violet tinge; and the light of a rainy day, and still more of a sudden tempest, has a violet appearance. Even the pure yellow of the spectrum, so reduced as to be barely visible, looks violet beside the same light in great intensity.

Much more useful for the contemporary reader are Peirce's definitions of terms in philosophy and logic, and he wrote nearly all of them for the Century. All the time that he was defining, he was also reading and translating philosophical works widely (from Greek, Latin, French, and German) for his own use. You can give yourself a very good education in philosophy simply by reading Peirce's systematic treatment of it in the Century. Its editors may not have appreciated it at the time, but they surely got the greatest bargain ever in hiring Peirce as a lexicographer.

The Century Dictionary was the greatest project ever undertaken in American lexicography and it is still a marvel to browse through today, more than 100 years after its publication. Hardly any page is without a fascinating illustration or encyclopedic definition. As you peruse the definitions you find there, reflect that they may have been crafted or edited by one of the greatest and most original minds the United States has produced.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 3rd, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Joseph M. G.
You should correct your lede: "My title this month assumes that you have heard of some lexicographer: . . . ."

It's "some lexicographers," not "some Lexicographer." Best wishes.
Monday June 3rd, 8:51 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
What a sad story about a great man. Thank you!
Tuesday June 4th, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm not sure what informs your suggested correction, Joseph M. G., but my use of "some" is consistent with its most common meaning: being an undetermined or unspecified one: "Some person may object." That's sense number one in the Random House Unabridged.

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