The Middle English Dictionary project

Paul Schaffner

We at the University of Michigan Library are pleased to report that revision of the Middle English Dictionary and its associated resources has begun, after a 20-year hiatus, thanks to a two-year grant (2016-18) awarded under the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our hope is that this effort will set in motion a process of ongoing revision, but our immediate goals are to perform only the most urgent updates, publishing as much supplementary information as we can, even when we cannot afford to integrate it fully into the existing online Dictionary. We have been attaching to the appropriate entries additional quotes and notes taken chiefly from two sources: (1) about 20,000 ‘supplement slips’ set aside over decades by the MED editors in hope that an MED Supplement would someday be compiled. These have hitherto lain largely inaccessible in boxes in the university archives. And (2) a much smaller number of new virtual supplement slips drawn from editorial notes in recent editions of ME texts, notes of the sort that typically declare, “this word (or sense, or spelling) omitted by MED.” We have also been adding those more recent editions (or some of them) to the Dictionary’s Bibliography, and will be roughly doubling the number of primary texts hosted on the Middle English Compendium site. Corrections and additions either to MED or to its Bibliography are welcome.

We have also continued the long process of removing artifacts of its print origins from the Dictionary, in favor of data that is more amenable to being searched and manipulated by computer. We are expanding some of the implicit and contracted spellings given in the print MED, thereby exposing them to search; and we are completing a nearly comprehensive map of MED to OED lemmas and sub-lemmas, thereby facilitating not only a seamless link to the corresponding OED entry but potentially also a lookup search of the MED itself by modern English equivalent (mostly to be identified with the OED headword).

Our larger goal is to transform the MED from an essentially static resource to an essentially dynamic one, in two respects, editorially, adding the ability to accept, store, and publish additions and corrections; and technically, preparing for the migration of the Dictionary and Compendium data to new platforms (to avoid technical obsolescence) and new functionality, which will allow the data to be opened up for reuse by other products and projects, thus fulfilling the vision that we always had for the MEC as a node in a network of historical dictionaries, electronic editions, text portals, and other linguistic resources. Paul Schaffner (P.I.); John Latta (editor); Mona Logarbo (editor); Robert E. Lewis (MED chief editor emeritus; volunteer editor).

Cynthia Barnhart

Cynthia Barnhart has allowed the Newsletter to publish two sections of her extraordinary memoir of her life in lexicography. I have read the entire piece (39 typed pages) and know that it would make an excellent article in a paying publication. Barnhart is a name to conjure with when it comes to dictionaries and the history around this name is of great interest. I hope that anyone reading this who can help with its publication will volunteer. [For more information about the Barnharts, please see the Fall 2016 Newsletter.]


I am still sad about how things worked out; I really was invested in the new English books and liked working on them. But then again, I guess I’m sad about all that’s happened in (or to) the dictionary firmament. Somehow I am indignant or regretful when I consult an online dictionary. (Who wrote this thing? I ask.) For all one knows, looking at the truncated lines of print, the shabby pronunciation keys, the want of explanatory citation that could so expand the minimal definitions, that’s all there is to language, just a few little phrasal descriptions of one word. A language of just one word, the one in front of you. Even the lists of other, related words, don’t suggest the scope of a language as a bookdictionary does.

At the least, if the user is looking in a smallish dictionary with just say 30,000 words, it’s clear there are a lot of words encased between those two covers, and if it’s a larger dictionary, there are more words. A book suggests size, heft and breadth of a vocabulary—who’d have thought there were so many words? And then there’s also the thought in a print dictionary that someone actually wrote down, using a pen and paper, those definitions that explain a word’s meaning. And then one can wonder, well, how many of those definitions did that someone write? Ten thousand? One hundred thousand? Five hundred? Did that person actually go from A to Z? And what about all those people from the preelectronic era who set those dictionaries into type, people who knew picas and halfspaces and secondary accents as well as most of us know periods—in trays of backwards letters, one after another—by hand and then by linotype machine, all those sheets of blank paper racing through a highspeed printer to pages, the stacks of uncut folios sliced into pages, finally sewn and bound, a book with covers enclosing text, a singular product of people and merciless, ingenious, noisy machines? What about the linotype operators who would spot something amiss on a page, query it for their rough proofreader who would mark the proof for the editor?

Does the contemporary dictionary person have the same feeling of connection to the way penandpaper became the final product? I do know something about electronic dictionary editing: You type your changes or new entries on a keyboard and, miraculously, they appear on the screen (almost) like typeset entries; you are inclined to think they must be correct or good enough, they are “in print”; you move onto the next and the next entry; you become very efficient, especially if you are lucky enough to have a good program to work in, and the fact is that there most likely isn’t much editorial oversight of your work that might improve the quality of your output for the simple reason that you are the firstdraft writer, the editor, editorinchief, proofreader, typesetter and stylist, one person at one computer, an island. You are not a discerning or gifted editor, you are simply a cog, and all those hours of keyboarding are a blur, not a book, simply a product.


So, what have I learned during the years between my first “job” at Clarence L. Barnhart and my later life as an unemployed dictionary person? A lot. A lot about dictionary making, about language; a lot about business and its essentially irrational nature; a lot about the friends one unexpectedly discovers along the way; a lot about family relations and disintegration; a lot about the obligations integral to the role of legatee; much about the fragility of human relationships; and gratefully, even more about how tentative our grasp on things that matter most to us and how important my children’s support (and tolerance) have been throughout. I have also found that writing a memoir helps get a perspective on events so charged, at times it seems as if there will never be any way to moderate the outsized emotion. It probably helps that I still believe what we did had value. Now that enough time has passed for me to think about our story with a little dispassion, I have finally come to realize I have found something like a perspective on the dysfunctional relationships between Rob, Clarence and Rob’s brother, David; I understand the dictionaries Rob wrote, even though they were very much the result of his own editorial vision, could not have happened without the work of his father, first with Thorndike, then as an independent dictionary maker; I accept that there was probably no way the three Barnhart men could ever fit comfortably in one room or in one business; and I am warmed by the reflected glow from the Barnhart contribution to the art of making dictionaries. Not incidentally, Rob and I had a really great time making dictionaries, making a family, making plans. Perhaps the message of the Barnhart story is that the angle of a trajectory is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.