Cordell Collection Visit

On the first day of the 22nd biennial DSNA meeting, a group of attendees took a chartered bus to Terre Haute for a special viewing of dictionaries held by the Cordell Collection of Dictionaries at the Indiana State University Library ( Displayed across two rooms of the Rare Books and Manuscripts unit for us to examine were items selected from the many gems in this collection by Cinda May, the library’s Chair of Special Collections. In one room was a tableful of  “favorites” including the recently acquired De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum (1471), the oldest item in the Cordell Collection thus far (; tiny items from the perennially popular miniature dictionary collection; and several unpublished works, including a “Nautical Word List” compiled by Laurence Urdang in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a manuscript in the form of note cards written by Mitford Mathews which spurred some eager researchers in our party to try to determine the project for which Mathews created these notes (their conclusion escapes my memory but is different from the work under which the Cordell Collection had classified them).

In a second room Cinda and her staff had collected sixteen works directly relevant to presentations on the DSNA 22 program, such as Johnathan Barber’s 1830 A grammar of elocution, selected to complement Anatoly Liberman’s presentation on “The uses of historical phonology”; 1755 and 1773 editions of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language, selected to complement Beth Young’s talk about her project creating an enhanced online version of Johnson’s dictionary;  and to pique interest in Alexander Bocast’s talk on the “Evolution of the dictionaries of John Entick and William Perry” the library displayed for us a 1770 edition of Entick’s spelling dictionary and a 1778 edition of Perry’s Royal Standard English Dictionary.

Our bus trip was generously funded by the Indiana State University Library. For researchers interested in working with items in the Cordell Collection, the staff of the collection reminded us of the Warren Cordell Research Fellowship, which can be awarded to support expenses involved in traveling to and staying in Terre Haute. For more information, see

Traci Nagle

The Barnhart Dictionary Archive

Cynthia Barnhart donated The Barnhart Dictionary Archive to the Lilly Library in 2016, some sixty drawers and 100 three-ring binders of it, 35 cartons of books, and four million citation slips employed in the making of various dictionaries by various Barnharts, the whole of it weighing in at nine tons. That’s a lot of archive. It will take a while for the library to process it. But once it’s available, the archive will transform our understanding of dictionary-making — lexicography — and publishing in 20th-century America.

The Barnharts were America’s “first family” of lexicographers. Clarence L. Barnhart (1900–1993) developed the influential and successful Thorndike-Barnhart series of school dictionaries (beginning in 1935 and appearing in editions as late as 1997), conceived and edited the American College Dictionary (1947), and led the editorial team behind the World Book Dictionary (published in 20 editions, 1964–1994). In his obituary of Barnhart, published in Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America (1994), Allen Walker Read insisted, “The death of Clarence Barnhart has taken away America’s pre-eminent lexicographer. This is so generally acknowledged that I need not dwell on it.”

But the acclaim and the life that led to it came about somewhat by accident. The ‘20s weren’t roaring for Barnhart, a Missouri native who was collecting debts in Kansas, when a friend persuaded him to leave not that much behind and start over in Chicago. He took a job with the publishing firm Scott, Foresman & Co., in the shipping room, and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned a B.A. and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

At Scott, Foresman, Barnhart rose to editorial file clerk and handled correspondence with Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), an eminent developmental psychologist at Columbia University who was preparing school dictionaries based on word frequency, with an innovative approach to defining. Meanwhile, he took graduate courses at Chicago with the linguists Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir and the lexicographers Sir William A. Craigie — one of the four principal editors of the Oxford English Dictionary — and James R. Hulbert, co-editors of the Dictionary of American English (four volumes, 1936–1944). Barnhart cut his lexicographical teeth in courses with Craigie and Hulbert and as an assistant on the DAE.

From that experience and a genius for dictionary-making, Barnhart launched a legendary lexicographical career at Scott, Foresman, on the Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries. During the Second World War, he accepted an invitation from the War Office to lead editing of what became the Dictionary of United States Army Terms (1944). Although classified as “Restricted,” the dictionary is nonetheless held by a few dozen libraries around the world. It would be wonderful if — upon opening one of those cartons of books — the library discovered a copy of this rare dictionary inside.

Even while editing the Dictionary of United States Army Terms, Barnhart worked as an independent contractor. When the war was won, Bennett Cerf, who co-founded the New York publishing firm Random House, decided to publish a dictionary and engaged Barnhart to lead the project. The American College Dictionary was the result, later expanded by Jess Stein, who had worked with Barnhart on the Dictionary of United States Army Terms, into the massive and much respected Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition (1966). Under various corporations and company names, Barnhart maintained his independence for decades.

Clarence L. was a star, and his gravity drew both of his sons, Robert K. (1933–2007) and David K. (b. 1941), into the galaxy of lexicography. At first, they were his satellites and worked on his dictionary projects, but eventually their own gravities increased massively, they became stars in their own rights, and were released from orbit. With his father and Sol Steinmetz, Robert edited the three volumes of the The Barnhart Dictionary of New English (1973, 1980, and 1990); his most significant independent work was The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (1988). David and Clarence edited The Barnhart Dictionary Companion: A Quarterly of New Words (1982–2001) together until Clarence’s death. In 1980, David founded his publishing company, Lexik House, which has published several important works, including John A. Holm’s and Alison Watt Shilling’s Dictionary of Bahamian English (1982) and, most recently, his own Barnhart’s Never-Finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century (2016). Cynthia was married to Robert and worked beside him on some of the Barnhart dictionaries, too, later editing The Facts on File Student’s Dictionary of American English (2008) on her own and contributing significantly to the Let’s Read series.

The Barnhart Dictionary Archive covers essentially anything one might want to know about individual Barnhart dictionaries or the Barnhart dictionary enterprise. The citation files and other sources of data represent the raw material from which the dictionaries were made. But the archive also includes questionnaire responses from editorial committee members and committee reports; correspondence with expert consultants; style sheets and procedures for determining and representing pronunciations; draft revisions and proofs — which provide a rare view into the way dictionary texts are built — including proofs of artwork; memoranda on the treatment of idioms; and much more. Looking up a word in a dictionary, one rarely pauses to consider all that went into making it, but the archive allows us to trace the genesis and editorial execution of several Barnhart dictionary projects and how they realize lexicographical principles and practices into dictionary products.

The archive also preserves file upon file of correspondence with lexicographical luminaries, like Read, Stein, Steinmetz, Laurence Urdang, R. W. Burchfield — editor of the four-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (1972–1986), Mitford M. Mathews — editor of the two-volume Dictionary of Americanisms (1951), Hans Kurath — editor of the Middle English Dictionary (1952–2001), C. T. Onions — another of the OED’s four editors, and Frederic G. Cassidy — original editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English (1985–2012), as well as historians of English, English dialects, and English usage, for instance, Kemp Malone and Louise Pound — two of the founding editors of the journal American Speech, Angus McIntosh — editor of the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (1986), Albert C. Baugh — author of what was then the leading history-of- English textbook,  Miles L. Hanley — associate editor of the Linguistic Atlas of New England (1939–1943), and yet more famous writers on language, for example, S. I. Hayakawa — author of Language in Thought and Action (1949), and later a United States Senator (1977–1983), William Safire, language columnist for the New York Times Magazine, and many, many more. The range of correspondents increases the value of the archive greatly, beyond its potential to improve our knowledge of lexicography generally or Barnhart dictionaries specifically, into a larger world of scholarship, ideas, and letters.

The Barnhart Dictionary Archive is especially important for its business records. On the editorial side, it includes project proposals and correspondence about them and about the subsequent conduct of the successful ones. Unless they are donated to a library in personal, family, or corporate archives, documents like these rarely see the light of day, but they often explain better than published dictionaries themselves what lexicographers thought they were up to in the dictionaries they made or — sometimes even more interesting — the ones they didn’t make.

The archive also includes paperwork related to copyrights and trademarks, accounts of employment interviews, contracts, and an extensive correspondence with publishers on all sorts of business matters, from marketing and advertising to costs and sales. Such records reveal the internal workings of the Barnhart enterprise but also capture facts about the publishers’ end of transactions, and the cooperation, collaboration, and conflict inherent in dictionary publishing. Such a view of publishers is difficult to achieve because their records are proprietary and well-guarded. The Barnhart Dictionary Archive allows us to see further into the world of commercial dictionary publishing than we usually can and indeed further into American publishing generally.

Who knows to what works of scholarship The Barnhart Dictionary Archive will lead? Biographies of Barnharts — singly or as a dictionary dynasty — editions of correspondence, footnotes in articles and books about publishing in the 20th century, detailed accounts of the various Barnhart dictionaries and their editors’ lexicographical techniques? Eventually, all of these and more. A trove of information as vast and specific as The Barnhart Dictionary Archive allows us to answer a lot of questions we already have about dictionaries and their makers, but also to ask questions we haven’t yet imagined and — without such an archive — never would.

  • Michael Adams
  • Note (DJ): Articles by Cynthia Barnhart have appeared in the History sections of the Fall 2017 (under Dictionary News in that case), Spring 2018 (Army Dictionary), and Spring 2019 DSNA Newsletters.