Reflections of an Electronic Scribe: Two Renaissance Dictionaries and Their Implicit Philosophies of Language
Jonathan Warren
University of Toronto

Warren, Jonathan. "Reflections of an Electronic Scribe: Two Renaissance Dictionaries and Their Implicit Philosophies of Language" Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 1 (1997): 7.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-01/si-01warren.html>.

  1. In 1616, the London publishing house of John Legatt offered one of the earliest English dictionaries in apparent wily recognition of a relatively new, though remarkably ripe, market for what was quickly becoming "a new genre of books": those targeted to ease public confusion in the face of an extraordinary early-seventeenth-century rise in neologisms derived from Romance and Latinate sources (Schäfer, "Re-Assessment" 31). Both the dictionary's "Epistle Dedicatory to the Lady Jane Viscountesse Mountagne" and the subsequent "Address to the Courteous Reader" explain that the volume is the product of individual labour by a "Doctor of Physicke." The introductory matter goes on to explain that John Bullokar's An English Expositor was not intended for publication, but for the private use of its compiler. The prefatory remarks' implicit claim that the volume was perhaps only a naive commercial gambit seems unlikely to be wholly true; Bullokar, though professionally identified as a man of science, was importantly the son of the linguist William Bullokar and, at least for this reason, on more intimate terms with the new market than his remarks may seem to admit (Schäfer, "Re-Assessment" 32, 35).[1] Bullokar's self-described "little vocabulary Treatise" is the result of its compiler's youthful efforts: it is an unapologetically idiosyncratic blend, a selection of words borne out of Bullokar's professional interest in Physicke. It was, as well, a brilliant publishing success that quickly became the standard against which other similar efforts were to be judged for almost half a century, enjoying 19 editions by 1775 (Schäfer, "Re-Assessment" 32, 45). There is no evidence in the work of any governing principle of dictionary creation that might, in turn, denote a guiding philosophy of language. Or, rather, one might say that Bullokar's dictionary does suggest such a system to its readers, a latent or implicit system, difficult to discern and at striking odds with the desperate labours of John Minsheu that I will come to in a moment.

  2. Bullokar's dictionary bears a subtitle that claims a high educative purpose for the work: "[t]eaching the interpretation of the hardest words used in our language with sundry explications, descriptions, and discourses." But to the extent that his dictionary was, in fact, the personal vocabulary list of a single medical practitioner, it hardly seems ready to fit such a bill. The subtitle, at odds as it is with the prose of the compiler, seems likely a device concocted for its marketing value rather than for its accuracy. Or perhaps, the subtitle is the genuine expression of the compiler's belief that the language's hardest words are those drawn from the scientific discipline in which he excelled. If this is the case, Bullokar claims largely for the practice of physicke the language's hardest words, English's thorniest understandings: a parochial tendency within the professions, of course, neither novel, nor obsolete, nor restricted to medical doctors.[2]

  3. Bullokar's dictionary does not claim for itself a thoroughness or, even, a system that aims at exhaustiveness. The very idea of what a "complete" dictionary might be for each of the two dictionary compilers I recall here--whose work I spent more than the past year transcribing into tagged computer-legible files--seems to me, after accruing familiarity with their works, the most provocative question. The principle of selection in Bullokar's dictionary is centered, as I have suggested, in the loose medical--and other archaic scientific and natural--curricula of Renaissance physicke. The words he chose to include in his dictionary are words he would have used.[3] They are words with which Bullokar's layman contemporaries would have been unfamiliar--or, if they had heard the words, they would have merely connected them to the esoteric zone of Physicke. The mysteriousness or hardness of the terms chosen marked them for selection by Bullokar. Bullokar's entry for "camphor" is typical of his talents of explication as well as of the limits to those talents:

    Camphire. A kinde of Gumme, as Auicen writeth. But Platearius affirmeth it to be the iuice of an herbe. It is white of colour, and cold and dry in operation.

    Bullokar's dictionary is rife with descriptions of minerals, earths, metals, juices, draughts, gums, extracts, syrups, curatives, purgatives, potions, poisons, fruits, nuts, and all manner of fatal illness and merely very unpleasant ailment. As with the entry for camphor just noted, Bullokar does not treat these terms as the material of language. Indeed, there is scant evidence throughout Bullokar's volume that he conceived of the words that named these fascinating and often exotic substances as constituting a currency all their own. Bullokar always cuts swiftly to the pragmatic application of the named thing: bad to eat, good for stopping the runs, will kill you quickly, costs a lot, and so on. The extent to which Bullokar acknowledges what we might recognize as akin to modern etymology is his recognition of classical scientific source material: in the case of camphor, Avicen may say it is a gum, and Platearius may say it is a juicy liquid, but Bullokar typically avoids further specificity and safely avers that its colour is white, and that it is cold and dry in operation.[4] Bullokar's idiosyncratic selectivity--largely brought to bear on what words enter his lexicon at all--exerts itself, in this way, within his definitions themselves.

  4. It would be wrong of me to claim that Bullokar limits himself to the specialized scientific vocabulary of his profession. Clearly, these words receive preference in this dictionary. Yet he finds a place for other words that do not seem so alien to non-scientific usage. But I also do not want to risk suggesting, at random, a sort of dividing line between scientific and non-scientific vocabulary for Bullokar. Such a claim, I think, would demand contextual research into the history of scientific professionalization. Bullokar's An English Expositor documents the establishment of the boundaries of its compiler's speciality. Bullokar's manifest interest in divination--an entry for which he inscribes his longest explanation--helps describe the frontiers of Renaissance Physicke. The manner of Bullokar's definition may seem to share with our current practices a certain "scientific" approach: he anatomizes the field of divination into three "kindes," the name and order of which are curious and telling: first supernatural, second natural, and third superstitious. He further subdivides natural divination into two branches. Superstitious divination, for which he reserves the most disrespect, also receives the lion's share of his attention: he divides this aberrant form of prediction into eleven diverse kinds. The lengthy and circuitous explanations that Bullokar assigns to these carefully reduced elements constitute the compiler's only kind of thoroughness--one that alternately praises and condemns various practices of prophecy and divination, but one devoid of specific reference to the language that names these practices as such.

  5. John Minsheu's Dictionarie in Spanish and English was published in London by Edmund Bollifant in 1599. It is a revision and expansion of an earlier, similar effort by Richard Percivale.[5] Minsheu, unlike Bullokar, was a Professor of Languages, an academic with a professional interest in the nature of words themselves.[6] Minsheu, unlike Bullokar, seems not to have come to dictionary production serendipitously, but through lengthy, purposeful, and--he pleads--unpleasant arduousness. Minsheu calls his task "the most unprofitable and unpleasant studie of searching words for a Dictionarie" and, later, explains that he has offered a "candle to light others, and burne out my selfe . . ." (2) In his Address to the Reader, Minsheu furthers this sense of industrious despair by projecting a kind of persecutorial stance onto his readership. He identifies three types of readers: the good, the bad, and the indifferent, and thus begins his dictionary by pitting two thirds of his public against him before proceeding to protest his worthiness against these imagined bad and indifferent readers: his mistakes were not really his own; he was unduly rushed; the printers most likely made errors that he could not correct because he was out of town. He would do it differently if he had it to do over, if he chose to do it at all.

  6. In addition to the repeated protestations of suffering and the various strategies he devises to seek out the pity and sympathy of his patrons and readers--rhetorical passages that continue to prove magnetic to me by virtue of the sheer scale of despair they catalogue in the midst of his labours--Minsheu's introductory remarks call attention to the real scale of his achievement. Minsheu, in order to document the innovations of his own volume over those of Percivale's original, marks each of his additions to Percivale's dictionary with an asterisk. That is, every entry that does appear in the Minsheu dictionary that did not appear in the Percivale work is preceded by an attention-nabbing star. Minsheu, in this way, notes his advances in completeness while advertising the sizable portion of the dictionary that represents the fruit of his professedly miserable struggles in the lexical field. In addition, Minsheu provides a pronunciation system for every word by means of accent marks. He expands upon Percivale's system of definition by providing what he calls "diverse significations for selfsame words": an innovative approach to what we might call multi-referential terms that Percivale apparently did not employ. Minsheu would not call these words multi-referential. Rather, Minsheu seems somewhat troubled by the fact that some various things have the same name. Indeed, Minsheu sometimes distinguishes between these identical names by various accented punctuation, perhaps in order to make the names of distinct things themselves distinct. Furthermore, Minsheu expands the range of his dictionary beyond singular words by citing what he calls "diverse hard and uncouth phrases" (phrases like "ay, ay, ay" meaning "oh, oh, oh"-- that Minsheu includes immediately after his definition of the singular word "ay" as "oh"--really do not seem worth the extra print).

  7. Minsheu, unlike Bullokar who followed him, seems to have favoured no quadrant of language over others. His words are drawn from no dominant professional vocabulary. Indeed, Minsheu's slippery goal of a thoroughgoing, complete dictionary--that is to say a dictionary that lists and tries to explain the names of all things--seems not only to be what marks his style of lexical work, but the vexing root of his unhappiness in the midst of the task. More often than not, Minsheu's quest for a complete account of Spanish words in English reveals an understanding of the nature of language itself: an understanding that differs from the easy idiosyncracy and occasional topical exhaustiveness that I registered in Bullokar and very curious in its own way. Minsheu demonstrates, in his dictionary, that he supposes that with sufficient stamina and tenacity, all words may be accounted for. He pursues this awesome task by energetically listing all words without allowing the relatedness of words to assist him in the task. What does this mean? How does this work? As my colleagues in the Early Modern English Dictionary project at the University of Toronto can attest, I remarked repeatedly on Minsheu's practice of devoting whole pages of his dictionary to variations on animal names: goats, geese, lambs, mules, donkeys, horses, and so on. Though these pages made transcription monotonous, on its own Minsheu's practice does not seem particularly remarkable. Indeed, many of these entries were in Percivale's original. What Minsheu adds is all manner of variation to these entries: big goat, little goat, place of big goats, place of little goats, a he goat, a she goat, a place of he goats, a place of she goats, and so on.[7] The practice is the same for plant names and all other words.[8] Minsheu handles each of these entries distinctly. His cross-references, indications of the relatedness of the words, are rarely reasoned and usually haphazard. For Minsheu, prefixes function to vary lemma placement on the basis of spelling; his methods indicate no appreciation for the power of prefixes and suffixes to vary the meaning of a lexical root. Minsheu's exhaustive practice of inclusion of all forms seems very cumbersome when used to account for verbs. Minsheu offers full declensions for hard and irregular verbs. Often he provides independent entries for every form of a verb--tenses, declensions, gerunds--sometimes with and sometimes separated from the entry for the infinitive form of the verb. Minsheu, in this way, suggests a theoretical tendency in his work. Language, in Minsheu's dictionary, is not a flexible economy of free-floating and ever-evolving signs. Such a suggestion would not only seem very foreign to Minsheu, but his introductory remarks reveal that he certainly did not possess the emotional grit to face such a protean beast. Minsheu evinces a faith, rather, that language--given sufficient energy and financial support--is fully documentable, that it does not randomly tag but that it adheres inextricably to the specific thing named.

  8. Bullokar's emphasis on the practical value of hard terms is only a rejection of the intellectual interest of words themselves, if we subject the compiler to a standard alien to his practice. Practical application is Bullokar's notion of the intellectual value of vocabulary. In contrast, Minsheu's ideology spurs a method apparently determined to explicate the tools of communication without concern for any extension into the realm of utility, and with thoroughness and wisdom. For this reason, we may be forgiven for mistaking Minsheu's appreciation as close to our valuation of language, signification, and etymology. Minsheu's explicit interest in plenty, however, marks him as a stranger to that standard as well. That Minsheu's gathering of language's bounty necessarily yields a display of word parts, roots, meaningful attachments, and conjugations, is a happy accident of his anxious method; his haphazard recognition of the relationships among words underscores this point. Minsheu's ample presentation of lexical forms may seem to authorize him as a philosopher of language. Nevertheless, Minsheu's product, though valuable to such philosophers, is the detritus of a promotional scheme more akin to Bullokar's glamourization of hard words than to our interest in understanding the functions of language.


1. Schäfer remarks: "It is possible that William Bullokar bequeathed to his son the idea for a dictionary and some material; in final concept and execution the work has to be considered Bullokar's own" ("Re-Assessment" 35).

2. On the expression, "hard words": Jürgen Schäfer has pondered the historically precise weight and import of the expression, an effort curiously neglected by historians of word usage until his instructive comments. Schäfer notes that "hard words" at the time of these early dictionaries or word lists "denote any kind of word, old or new--even proper names, which might present difficulties in understanding" (Schäfer "Re-Assessment" 34) and not old words, "new-fangle" words, or foreign words exclusively (34, 46). And, as Schäfer indicates, Bullokar draws from all these fields. Bullokar's volume does nevertheless tend to enact a less generalized appreciation of the "hard words" range of implication. That is, though drawn from the old and the new and the alien, Bullokar does favour the technical terms rooted in the practice of physicke. For more on the novelty of Bullokar's subject matter as contrasted to his contemporaries and precursors, see Schäfer's "Re-Assessment," especially pages 33 and 35-39.

3. For further acknowledgement of the striking novelty of Bullokar's inclusion of professional vocabulary in the context of contemporary lexicographical work, see Schäfer ("Re-Assessment" 35).

4. For a brief characterization of the Renaissance practice of etymologia as it differs from our methods (with particularly helpful reference to period dictionary methodological evidence), see Schäfer's persuasive revaluation of Minsheu's Ductor in Linguas ("Scholar or Charlatan?" 25-26).

5. The title page of Minsheu's dictionary gives primacy to his debt to "Ric. Perciuale Gent." but quickly moves past advertising his antecedents in favour of featuring his own accomplishments. Indeed, were it not for the reference to Percivale on the title page, Minsheu's uninformed reader might not appreciate the breadth of the compiler's obligation. In fact, Minsheu's dictionary offers:

a surprisingly small number of words which Percyvall had not entered in some form or other. Yet Minsheu achieves a fivefold increase in the number of entries over Percyvall. The increase largely results from the introduction of new forms for words already present in Percyvall, i.e. variant spellings and derived forms, and the inclusion of an English-Spanish part made up largely of words reversed from the Spanish-English part. (Steiner 42)

For more on Minsheu's motives for denying his precursors their due and his interesting and antagonistic relationship with Percivale, his other contemporary colleagues, and his adversaries, see Steiner (41-42, 51).

6. Despite Minsheu's nominal qualifications contra Bullokar, one would be wise to consult Schäfer's Introduction to Ductor in Linguas to understand the nature and extent of Minsheu's professional expertise. Schäfer explains, in short, that "Minsheu is not a theoretician or learned scholar but a practical teacher of languages" ("Introduction" xi).

7. In addition to the multiple, related, but often non-cross-referenced forms already mentioned, consider Minsheu's extraordinary decision to rehearse a huge number of lemmas with an antonymic prefix attached. For more on Minsheu's introduction of multiple forms--sometimes instructive and helpful, often seemingly for the sake of quantity only--see Steiner (45).

8. Steiner elaborates this point: "A lack of method is evident when two or more words or variants of the same meaning are to be ordered alphabetically. They may be included in the same entry, e.g., `Vejés, or Vejez, age, old age.' Or one may be cross-referenced to the other . . . . Or each may be listed in its place in the alphabet with its variant and gloss [without cross-referencing]" (46-47).


© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, 14 December 1997)