No king rules forever and no dictionary is everlasting

by Iván Ramírez Sánchez

In the following lines I will try to give some justification for such a grandiloquent title, but it does reflect a reality that we tend to overlook, especially before delving into lexicography.

Samuel Johnson was a brilliant mind who possessed what has been said of some Spanish lexicographers: “ardor intellectual” (intellectual ardor), which means that they had a prodigious capacity to perform intellectual tasks without fatigue, or at least, without apparent fatigue. The lexicographers of the past (I think the current ones also make the same mistake, an inevitable product of passion) loved to set unachievable deadlines for works that any team of people would find exhausting. Although Johnson estimated that his dictionary would be finished in three years, an innocent estimate to say the least, to have finished it in nine is not a failure, but a real feat. Not only for the fact of compiling and defining words, an extraordinary complicated task for anyone who has tried to define in an academic way at some point, but also for accompanying each sense (or many of the senses that appear in his dictionary) with quotations from great authors evidencing their use. The scholarship required to accomplish this latter task is hard to imagine considering that his dictionary contains more than 42,000 entries with approximately twice as many senses, for a total of almost 100,000 literary references. This was done by a single person in nine years.

Dictionaries, any of them, are a form of crystallization of the ideologies and ways of seeing the world of past eras. They are a very accurate approach to thoughts that predate our own because any dictionary aspires to describe reality objectively, although in past times there is clearly a personal imprint of each author. Johnson was no exception to this rule. His dictionary is a compendium of 42,000 small glimpses of how the universe could be perceived in 18th century England. Our current dictionaries also reflect our way of seeing things, so their study will be important within the next few centuries. The same is true of Johnson’s dictionary. Its preservation and publication through modern methodologies and presentation is a contribution of extraordinary value to philology, history, linguistics, lexicography and, of course, culture.

My task in this project began with proofreading. This involves detecting errors in the transliteration of the text of the images in the original dictionaries into the digitized version. It is a light and friendly work that is very useful to start familiarizing not only with lexicography, but also with the peculiarities of the Dictionary of the English Language. After a few weeks with this activity, I switched, with Dr. Young’s approval and after a dedicated seminar, to XML fixing tasks. This activity within SJD was of particular interest to me because in digital lexicography it is becoming essential to have a working knowledge of this language, which is very similar in structure and operation to HTML, although with its own particularities. Since then I have revised more than 3,000 entries from its HTML code, paying attention to etymology, typographical issues and text highlighting, as well as trying to correct errors in the transliteration of images. It is a task that demands more effort and attention than proofreading because in this case it requires direct intervention of the proofreader, but the best part of the process is to be able to observe the application of the changes directly on the web page. We work with XML only in the 1773 version, for the moment only for internal use. Otherwise, there could be technical problems to display the 1755 public version and we don’t want that!