Newsletter Fall 2023

Table of Contents

Member & Dictionary News

What have you been up to? The DSNA loves to share news of member projects, publications, programs, and more! Please send your news to for inclusion; deadline for submissions for the Spring 2024 issue is Monday 25 March 2024. You can also see and share what’s happening on DSNA’s Member Forum, Facebook, and Twitter

Helen Zaltzman‘s The Allusionist, a podcast about language, features DSNA 24 presenters in recent episodes: Sterling Martin (Allusionist 180. Project ENABLE) and Lindsay Rose Russell (Allusionist 181. Cairns); George Aaron Broadwell forthcoming.

The Allusionist logo.

Paul Schaffner has sent news of the recent update to the Middle English Dictionary:

The Middle English Dictionary is pleased to announce that corrections and improvements made to the Dictionary during the last three years have now gone online. Compared to the previous release (dating from the summer of 2020), the now current version contains about 3,400 additional citations, and 271 new entries (entry words). For a dead language, Middle English is proving remarkably lively. The MED Bibliography has also undergone revision and enlargement, ranging from changes to manuscript dates to the addition of about 230 new items (“stencils”—unique combinations of work, manuscript, and edition), mostly arising from newly published editions. It is our purpose to keep MED current with new work, so far as we can, and the Bibliography now references not only recently published work, but also some pre-pub texts contributed by scholars in the course of their editorial work, as well as the occasional online facsimile. Many thanks to the programmers in Library IT at the University of Michigan who made this happen!

Tinatin Margalitadze has sent news from the European Master in Lexicography (EMLex) program:

EMLex, European Master in Lexicography ( is an MA program teaching lexicography to international students from all over the world. The program was founded several years ago by a consortium of universities, including: Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (Germany), Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem (Hungary), Uniwersytet Śląski w Katowicach (Poland), Université de Lorraine (France), Universidade do Minho (Portugal), Università degli Studi Roma Tre (Italy), Universidade de Santiago de Compostela (Spain), and Stellenbosch University (South African Republic). This year, the European Union approved the application of Ilia State University (Georgia) for full membership in the Consortium.

Terry Pratt has just released a novel of academic satire, In the Hollow Lotos Land:

When James Knowlton, Associate Professor of English at a small Canadian university, is denied a well-deserved promotion by his surly dean, he spins a plot of revenge that makes today’s election hackers and dirty tricks operators look like rank amateurs. Available online at Barnes and Noble and other retailers in both paperback and hardcover.

Conference Report

Bye-Bye to Boulder, Bonjour to Buffalo

The genre of writing that can be characterized as “An Old Man Reminisces” is especially tedious so I will try to keep this brief. Just a few thoughts about our recent meeting in Boulder:

It was a great success. I feel confident in saying that after hearing it from so many who attended, and I was myself very happy with the outcome of my first, and probably only-ever attempt at conference organizing and hosting. Let me correct the impression that I can take credit for how well things went. It actually takes two villages to make a conference happen, the local one and the virtual one. We were lucky to have the best of both villages. CU’s Linguistics Department went all out, supplying funding, facilities, speakers, papers, and a workshop to the conference. We also received financial support from four other entities at CU: the Department of English, the Program for Writing and Rhetoric, the Arts & Sciences Fund for Excellence, and the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies.

About fifty smiling humans filling an indoor staircase, wearing badges, some masked.
DSNA 24 attendees gathered on the steps of the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. (Photo courtesy of George E. Hall.)

The conference was organized virtually, in several online meetings, by a small committee: Ed Finegan, Lindsay Rose Russell, and Kory Stamper joined me in that endeavor and they could not have been more supportive (nay, indulgent). I was also lucky to be able to draw on the sage wisdom of Michael Adams, organizer of two of our conferences, including the last in-person one in 2019. We received very helpful financial support from several individual DSNA members and from three of our long-time fellow travelers: Cambridge University Press, Merriam-Webster, and the American Dialect Society.

All of the foregoing coalesced to make a complex and expensive undertaking come off in a way that felt organized (most of the time) and not exorbitant (I hope) for all who attended. We would not have been able to welcome so many new members working on indigenous lexicography without the help we received from all quarters.

The Boulder conference was the 16th one that I have attended. My first was in Las Vegas in 1993, and I have never missed a conference since then. After so many, a lot of memories get conflated, but there are still some standouts in my wet hard drive. To name a few: the time that Cynthia Hallen got the audience to sing along with her in Las Vegas, talking about the Emily Dickinson Lexicon; my first meeting with Erin McKean, in Cleveland, at which she gave me the Webster’s New World Dictionary she had won at the conference banquet; the Catchwords’ performance in Chicago, at which we integrated “Luanne von Schneidemesser” into a song lyric; Radia Benzehra’s talk in Montreal that lit a fire under the staid world of Arabic lexicography; and walking along the beach from my accommodation in Barbados to get to the conference hotel.

There were many new and many young faces at the Boulder conference. I wonder what they will remember about it. For the young and first-time attendees, I hope they felt like I felt after I had attended my first DSNA conference: like I had finally found my tribe. For fellow DSNA members who have attended many conferences, I know that we all left Boulder with the sense of fulfillment that you get after a family reunion, because that’s really what DSNA conferences are, in addition to their many other purposes. For me, the standout memory of the conference was feeling like I needed a box of Kleenex while listening to Kathy Michel’s moving testimony about the challenges and obstacles that she and her community face in trying to preserve what is left of the once vibrant native language of the Upper Nicola Band.

Two themes stood out from the many conversations I had at the conference. First, that we, as individuals and as an organization, have an important role to play and a significant contribution to make in the preservation and revitalization of North American indigenous languages. I hope that we will continue this focus going forward. Second, that lexicography and artificial intelligence (AI) are bumping into each other with a frequency and intensity that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. It has long been my feeling that lexicography has not had a loud enough voice in the great diversity of computational exploitations of language. Before AI unseats us from the defining chair altogether, it’s incumbent on us to shine the light of lexicography wherever darkness prevails among the bits and bytes.

It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces after too long an interval, and equally wonderful to see so many new ones. See you all in Buffalo in 2025!

-Orin Hargraves

A Life in Lexicography

All presidents of the DSNA deliver a speech titled “A Life in Lexicography” at the biennial meeting that marks the end of their term. The following address was given by Edward Finegan at DSNA24 on Friday 2 June 2023 in Boulder, Colorado.

When I sat for my Ph.D. qualifying examinations in the English Department of the oldest university in the Northwest Territory, I was alone but for the proctor, who was my advisor—the scholar who eventually directed my dissertation.

Robert Roe had advised me how to prepare for the exam and counseled me that if I knew the contents of a specific dozen or so books in detail and could apply the knowledge of linguistics contained in them to other contexts, I’d succeed at the exam.

I was nervous, in retrospect doubtless as nervous as I am now when a physician takes a stethoscope to my heart during even routine medical exams. Like most of you, I’d imagine, my blood pressure rises with white-coat syndrome—and my qualifying examination was of that ilk.

Still, I read through the questions rather hopefully until I came to one that invited tears to my eyes. It asked me to determine the origin of the dialect represented in Lord Ashley Cooper’s Dictionary of Charlestonese. Distressingly, none of the readings I’d been assured would get me through the quals included so much as a mention of Ashley Cooper—a pseudonym, by the way—or of his dictionary.

Today there are copies of the dictionary available from AbeBooks and elsewhere for about $40, and there’s an OCR’d fifth edition available on the Internet Archive. The late Madeline Kripke likely had a copy or two in her collection, and perhaps Bryan Garner has one in his vast collection.

Cooper’s dictionary contains such entries as these:

BARTER – Something to spread on bread.

BECKON – Meat from a pig, often eaten with a-igs for brake-fuss.

BONE—Blessed event, i.e., “I was bone a Charlestonian.”
(A VERY blessed event, in the minds of all Charlestonians.)

Just to be certain you have a sense of the dictionary, here are a couple others:

BRAID – What you make toe-est from, to go along with beckon.


BUN – Consume by heat, i.e., “when you make toe-est, don’t bun the braid.”

Oh, I can’t resist now I’ve started:

PIE SUN – What you put out to kill roaches that they usually thrive on.

POACH – A verandah.

WRETCHED – The long name for the nickname “Dick.”

And one of my favorites:

VERSION – The kind of Queen that Queen Elizabeth I was.

Anyway, back to my quals:

After I’d read the question, I recall lifting the pages containing it and moving to return them to my advisor— “I’ll take the exam next year,” I thought I’d say— “I’m not feeling so well today,” and I hoped the tears swelling in my eyes hadn’t yet formed into visible drops or even fallen on the exam pages.

Never having heard of Lord Ashley Cooper or his dictionary, I felt a failure—ashamed. At just that moment, though, “as I glanced up to quit the exam, my advisor was handing me a copy of Lord Ashley Cooper’s Dictionary of Charlestonese, a mere pamphlet. I lowered the questions back onto the desk and took hold of the dictionary—just in time to keep me in my seat.

As I think back on it, the question was an excellent one. It tested my ability to read dictionary entries and, among many other things, recognize they were indeed arranged in alphabetical order, even if unusually spelled. I could use the spellings to infer pronunciations. I could even uncover patterns in the history of English and engage in centuries-old dialectology. I also learned, albeit not for the first time, that dictionaries could convey delight. Best of all, this dictionary had the power to keep tears of embarrassment from forming on a young man’s eyes.

Ashley Cooper’s Dictionary of Charlestonese wasn’t my first acquaintance with dictionaries in grad school, of course. Let me back up. I should mention that I entered grad school to take an MA in English because I’d been a member of a religious congregation, for six years from age 16 to 22, and been prepared by the congregation to teach physics and mathematics in schools in North America’s largest cities for the whole of my life.

I’d wanted to study Classics, as I told my superiors, but, in 1960 when my class of young monks had to choose a college major and when Russia’s Sputnik had been launched only three years earlier, Classics wasn’t an option for me. After I later left monastic life and had taught math for a year on Long Island as a civilian, I entered grad school for a year’s humanities education—compensation for what I’d felt lacking in my preparation as a STEM teacher.

Two other grad school stories—quickly! At the first class meeting in a research methods class that at the time—like Old English—was universally required for grad students in English, the instructor gave us a list of questions to answer as a homework exercise.

“Where would one seek a definition of the Shakespearean use of the verb ‘to die’ in its sexual sense?” the question read. Like my smart classmates with their undergrad degrees in English, I too knew the answer. The OED, naturally—what a silly question! Still, with an earlier habit of devotedness by then part of my character, I thought it wise to confirm my knowledge. In the Ohio University Library, I examined the OED, standing up—my eyes were strong then and I could read at some distance. Too quick and cursory I decided after not finding any sexual meaning for “die,” so—still standing—I slowed my second reading but failed again to find any hint of sex in the DIE entry. So I sat down and proceeded slowly through the lengthy entry in that first edition OED. It’s not there, I finally recognized. What an idiot that instructor, I thought. He thinks it would be in the OED! Not wanting to embarrass him, in answer to that question in the homework exercise, I wrote “OED,” cognizant it wasn’t true. I lied. I won’t regale you with the ridicule the instructor heaped on those of us who cited the OED, nor need I report I didn’t dare confess I’d checked and double-checked and even triple-checked the OED. It was a foolish thing to do, but I wasn’t so foolish as to tell a full professor I was trying to save him some embarrassment! In fact, the instructor said we ought to have checked the OED and seen that even that great dictionary was a product of its times, and that Victorian social mores lay behind the OED’s omission of matters orgasmic. That was the very point of the exercise, of course.

A third reportable grad school encounter with a dictionary occurred when I was issued a copy of one to bolster my work teaching a course in freshman comp. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate was the finest book I’d ever owned—in the monastery, everything was on loan. I loved my Collegiate. In fact, I loved it to death—literally, though in a manner of speaking. After about 24 months of use, I’d so consumed it that it fell apart—it was unusable. So did I go to one of the local bookstores to buy a copy or ask the director of freshman comp for a new one? Somehow I imagined it was Merriam-Webster’s responsibility to replace my worn-out copy, so I wrote to Springfield. Fred Mish, then Merriam’s VP, I think, and later to become a charter member of DSNA, sent a polite letter in return, and the letter accompanied a brand new Seventh Collegiate.

Let me return now to my qualifying exam. I figured out enough about the origins of Charlestonese and whatever else was asked of me to pass the exam, and in due course I told my advisor that for my dissertation I intended to write a transformational grammar of Southern Ohio and West Virginia English. TG was all the rage in 1966, and at the end of only two months at a Linguistics Institute at the University of Michigan, where I’d taken a couple of courses in TG, I was offered a lectureship to teach transformational grammar at the University of Manchester. I was just three years from my bachelor’s degree in physics and two years from teaching math to middle schoolers. I declined the offer—and I can’t imagine what would’ve become of me had I traveled down that TG highway.

Anyway, when I told my advisor I intended to write a transformational grammar, he scoffed: “After a year, no one will read it,” he said. “It would be out of date. Don’t waste your time!”

Instead, he explained, we didn’t really have a grasp of what had occurred with Webster’s Third and didn’t have an adequate understanding and appreciation for the attitudes some people—including some respectable ones—expressed in their hostility to Gove’s book. So I took up the task, and the effects of that decision on my life aren’t inconsiderable. As one example, some 50 years later I’ve just written a chapter on attitudes toward “the dictionary”—that’s the generic, not the Third—for the Cambridge Handbook of the Dictionary, which Michael Adams and I have just completed editing. The Handbook includes superb contributions from nearly thirty contributors, including a handful sitting in the audience this evening. [Michael Adams, Orin Hargraves, Lindsay Rose Russell, Edward Finegan, Wendolyn Nichols, Anatoly Liberman, Jason Siegel]

So how did I get here—president of the Dictionary Society and charged this evening with telling a story generically called “A Life in Lexicography”? Well, I wouldn’t be the first DSNA president to retitle my talk, so I’m not starting a precedent by calling mine “A Life AND Lexicography” or perhaps, as Lynne Murphy has aptly suggested, “A Late Life OF Lexicography.”

Who are we, gathered here tonight? What brings us together if not a love for, or a dedication to or need for, a dictionary or a bookshelf full of them—or a house full? Whatever the title for my talk this evening, the road to DSNA was a roundabout one. And I have about 8 or 9 minutes left to share it with you.

In January of 2007, in Anaheim, California, coming out of an ADS session, Joan Houston Hall asked whether I’d be willing to serve on DSNA’s executive board, and—though it hadn’t entered my mind before—I said yes.

That led to a biennial meeting of DSNA in mid-June later that year, and I showed up in Chicago rather shy. I didn’t know many people in the Society because—with an incidental exception eight years earlier—I’d never been to a DSNA biennial. To help get acquainted in Chicago, I’d brought along my digital camera and took pictures on every occasion. Not for the first time, I learned that people—I don’t know whether this is any more true of DSNA members than anyone else—were keen to pose and smile. Before the meeting of the executive board I was about to join, I’d been invited to meet folks for lunch in an informal restaurant in Chicago—I think it was the Medici. I arrived early and had no sooner stepped nervously through the door when Steve Kleinedler, also newly elected to the board, followed me in. We were escorted to the DSNA table and were joined by half a dozen others—I have the pictures! —and introduced to still other DSNA members enjoying their lunch. Erin McKean and Luanne von Schneidemesser were at the table; so were Wendi Nichols, Terry Pratt, Michael Hancher, David Jost, and David Barnhart, the last three all wearing ties, Barnhart his hallmark bow tie. Ed Gates sat with us, a DSNA founder. Nearby sat Vicki Neufeldt, also a DSNA charter member, and Michael Adams. Michael sat with Orin Hargraves, both of them nibbling on French fries, the photographs remind me.

I remember some of the papers and a good deal else about the conference, including a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, where I spent time with Sidney Landau (a DSNA charter member) and his wife, Sarah. Also on the Robie House tour were Sarah Ogilvie and Gary Simes. At the biennial banquet, David Jost played the piano while Lisa Berglund, Peter Gilliver, Orión Montoya, Terry Pratt, and Orin Hargraves—the “Catchwords”—joined together in chorus. Except for Orión, all the men wore ties, and Peter wore a light-colored linen suit, not the only one at that Chicago meeting to do so [a nod to Jesse Sheidlower sitting in the Boulder audience]. Ties and linen suits—times have changed!

Well, besides serving on DSNA’s board and several of its committees over the years since 2007, I’ve served as co-organizer of the 2021 virtual biennial and as editor of the Society’s journal and as DSNA’s delegate to the American Council of Learned Societies and its representative at the founding of GlobaLex. More recently I learned a great deal as vice president while Elizabeth Knowles led the organization—and for the past two years and until an hour ago, I held the title of president. There’s plenty of opportunity to contribute to DSNA, and I’ve been richly rewarded—intellectually and socially—by my DSNA involvement.

But have I led a life in lexicography? The answer of course is negative. I’ve spent my life as a linguist, so I’ll have to take advantage of modern search tools—the kinds that weren’t available when I was searching for the sexual meaning of DIE in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

According to advanced search results at the OED website, Shakespeare is credited with 14,343 quotations, 1561 of which are first quotations. I haven’t checked to see how many quotations DSNA members have contributed, but so many DSNA members have made and are making dictionaries and editing them, all sorts of dictionaries. I have no such feather to decorate my cap. I didn’t work on the MED, the OED, Webster’s anything, American Heritage’s anything, Webster’s New World anything, and I envy the many participants at this Boulder conference creating dictionaries of North American Indigenous languages in the framework of relational lexicography.

Lexicography changed in the decades before 2007 and in the years since then. Dictionaries themselves have changed, and dictionary publishers. Lindsay Rose Russell tells me that when she told her students at the University of Illinois that, not very long ago, it was customary to present secondary-school and college graduates with a dictionary as a gift, several exclaimed, “Oh, how sweet, how quaint!” This conference, by contrast, has demonstrated the vitality and the social, cultural, and intellectual importance of current lexicographical work.

As for me, I’m pleased that, though I haven’t edited a dictionary, I wore one out, and were it not that I now have so many and rely so heavily on electronic ones, I’d have worn out several more. But because dictionaries are electronic and because I’ve written a good deal about the English language and linguistics in general, I must settle on an obscure contribution—four of them, in fact. I hope you’ll indulge me this light, self-mocking touch.

If you search the OED, you’ll find—alongside Shakespeare’s 14,000 quotations—one by me, just one. In the entry for social are subentries for compounds like social compact, social butterfly, and social life. Among them is one for social dialect and, while the term first appeared in 1852, the OED includes a 2001 quotation from a book chapter I co-authored with Doug Biber, one of my former students. The quotation reads,

We believe that certain features of social dialect arise from this differential access to the full range of registers among social groups.

To Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, I have provided three quotations. One is for Babel—the city in Shinar where the building of a tower is held in Genesis to have been halted by the confusion of tongues. A second occurs in the entry agent, where the run-on agentless lacks a definition but offers two quotations, one dealing with filmmakers and the other—mine—a grammatical sense. That quotation reads,

In spoken language, agentless passives are often equivalent to active sentences with the indefinite … pronoun they. … Specifically, agentless passives are used when the agent is either known or not particularly significant (as in this very sentence).

The fourth quotation—I’m gaining on you, Shakespeare!—is for the phonetic term flap. Its sixth sense, identified as a term in phonology, includes this unforgettable quote:

An alveolar flap is the sound created with the tip of the tongue flaps quickly against the alveolar ridge….

(Now for those few of you who may not know where on earth or in the mouth to look for the alveolar ridge, there is an entry in the same Unabridged. Disappointingly, it has no quotations.)

There are likely some in this banquet venue this evening who’ve contributed more quotations than the few I’ve described. Vastly more significant, sitting here are dictionary editors who choose which quotations to include in illustration of particular senses in an entry. I offer a deeply admiring shout out for the work you do. Were it not for your diligence and intelligence, for your skill and dedication, for your recognition of the centrality of language to our social, cultural, and intellectual lives, to our very identity as Kathleen Michel eloquently noted in her talk yesterday, I could never have worn out a dictionary or gathered a small collection of them, dating as far back as 1669 and Edmund Castell’s Lexicon Heptaglotton—a dictionary of Hebrew, Jewish-Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Persian. Were it not for your diligence and intelligence, for your skill and dedication, I would not be standing here tonight talking about my life of lexicography! I thank you, my old colleagues and the many new colleagues who’ve shared your talents and insights with us at this, the 24th DSNA biennial meeting.

CFP: Dictionaries Special Issue on Talking Back to the Dictionary

Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America invites submissions for a special issue on the reception of dictionaries by their users.

It is commonplace to speak of “using” a dictionary rather than “reading” it. This issue asks after the uses to which users have put their dictionaries beyond simply reading them. A user who looks up a word might accept what they find, or they might object to it, reject it, or rewrite it. Their use of the dictionary might be confined to a private act, such as annotating the pages of a single copy (e.g., Adams 2018) or wrestling with definitions in a personal diary (e.g., Turton 2022), or it might be publicly broadcast through writing for newspapers and scholarly journals (e.g., Bailey 2000), penning letters to dictionary houses (e.g., Stamper 2017), organizing boycotts against them (e.g., Russell 2021), or airing opinions on social media (e.g., Martin 2021).

Expanding on the conversation begun in Dictionaries’ special forum on “Dictionaries in the Public Eye” (Issue 42.1), this special issue approaches lexicography not as a linear transfer of information from dictionary-makers to users but as a multidirectional practice in which reception is as worthy of study as production. The issue invites articles that critically examine any aspect of users’ engagement with dictionaries, for any language and at any point in history, including but not limited to the following:

  • Letters to dictionary editors and publishers from members of the public who offer advice, contributions, or criticism.
  • Book reviews, news items, and opinion pieces about dictionaries.
  • Petitions, boycotts, and other mass campaigns directed at dictionary houses, online and offline.
  • Court cases brought against dictionaries and court cases bringing in dictionaries as authorities.
  • The citation of real dictionaries, or the invention of fictitious ones, in literature.
  • Private comments on dictionaries recorded in letters or diaries.
  • Dictionaries written in response (commercial, political) to other dictionaries.
  • The repurposing of dictionaries for non-textual uses (artistic projects, doorstops, table braces, kindling).

If you are interested in contributing to the issue, please submit a 300-word abstract of your proposed paper to the issue’s guest editor, Stephen Turton (, who also welcomes any questions or informal expressions of interest.


Abstract deadline: November 1, 2023

Full paper deadline: March 1, 2024

Planned publication date: Autumn 2024 (Issue 45.2)

For more information about the purpose and scope of Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, please visit

Column: Quotations

The Best Disinfectant

Every so often, I come across a phrase that triggers awareness of an underlying quotation—whether or not the usage acknowledges the link. Most recently, a torrid spell in British current affairs threw up one such phrase. A leader in the London Times, on the need for the inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain to progress more swiftly, was headed simply “Best Disinfectant.” The final paragraph began: “Light is the best disinfectant and it needs to be shone on the inner workings of Downing Street and Whitehall during Covid.”

The concept of exposure to natural light acting as a protection against infection is a long-standing one. In January 1879, a short article on disinfectants appeared in The Laws of Health, a journal edited by the Canadian-American physician and homeopath Robert Walter (1841-1921). The article concludes with this advice:

The best agent with which to disinfect a sick room is an abundance of hot steam; but this is not always at hand. But there is always plenty of pure air and sunlight, and these alone are far superior to all other agents in the world, if used without them. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Malaria, for instance, which is one of the most difficult things to contend against, is dissipated when the sun shines, and exerts it pernicious influence at night.

Setting aside what we would now see as a more than doubtful view on how malaria might be spread, the excerpt offers a solid example of the key statement in its literal meaning. Other instances have been identified by the always-excellent Quote Investigator website, and include an early metaphorical use in the Buffalo Daily Times of 1898, using the phrase “the great disinfectant of publicity” while praising the newspaper the New York Sun for demonstrating the value of the government’s publishing a list of pensioners’ names within districts. However, the key figurative usage which resonates down the years, dates to an article in Harper’s Weekly of 20 December 1913.[1] “What Publicity Can Do” by Louis D. Brandeis opens with the words “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” It is worth noting here the qualification “is said to be.” Brandeis was in no sense claiming coinage of the phrase; rather he was employing what he saw as a familiar concept, and turning it to metaphorical use to make his point.

Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856–1941), nominated to the Supreme Court in 1916, is a noted figure in American legal history, developing opinions on freedom of speech and the right to privacy. He was deeply concerned with social justice. The entry for him in the American National Biography testifies to his significance in American legal and political history. His name and reputation therefore are likely to add force to a quotation from his writings. During the unfolding of the Watergate affair, the American Times Daily of 2 February 1974 carried a report under the heading “Sunlight best disinfectant says former speechwriter.” This provided an amplification by a former White House speechwriter, John K. Andrews, to an interview he had recently given. Stating that he had no ill will towards the President or the present and former aides, whom he regarded as friends, he explained his reasons for giving the interview. “For too long, however, the American people have been asked to swallow their concerns about presidential integrity while Mr. Nixon and his aides worked out the Watergate matter in their own way behind closed doors. The damage which this approach is doing to the institution of the presidency must be stopped. I have reluctantly spoken out because I believe, as a great jurist once put it, that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant.’” 32 years later, William J. Bennett cited Brandeis explicitly in the introduction to America: The Last Best Hope (Thomas Nelson, 2006): “Injustices need sunlight—always, as Justice Brandeis said, the best disinfectant.”

Reference to the authority of a famous name typically helps such a quotation on the way to its place in the public vocabulary. That point was made neatly by the late Sir Antony Jay (1930–2016) in his introduction to the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (OUP, 1996): “In mobilizing support for a project or a policy it is especially agreeable to be able to call upon the distinguished dead; their distinction adds intellectual weight and moral force to the argument, and their death makes it impossible for them to appear on television later and say that they meant something completely different.” As the Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, where demonstration of usage has always been the key factor in determining whether or not a quotation should be included, I fully accept this neatly-made argument, but in this particular case it prompts some further reflection. I was particularly interested in the degree to which this particular quotation had travelled across the Atlantic.

The starting point, of course, was to compare the London Times usage from 2023 cited above with the 1914 origin of the words. Most obviously, the quoted sentence has been lightly edited. “Light” replaces “sunlight,” and “the best of disinfectants” is shortened to “the best disinfectant.” The second clause relating to artificial light has disappeared altogether. None of this is surprising, since the natural propensity is always to edit slightly as we quote. Typically, the gist of a statement is reproduced, with the possible substitution of a near-synonym for one or more elements (“sunlight”/“light”), and the tightening of the form of expression (“the best”/“the best of”). Secondly, and importantly, there is no attribution to the originator of the thought. This of course can mean simply that the original quotation is so well-known and well-used that it has become fully part of the wider vocabulary, as many Shakespearian and biblical phrases have done. On the other hand, it may also suggest that the name of the person to whom the quotation should be attributed is not seen as having particular resonance. A newspaper’s leader column will operate under tight rules of extent, with wording tightly tailored to requirements. While in an American newspaper, an allusion to Brandeis such as that made by Bennett cited above would have been meaningful, it might well be seen to have less resonance with a British audience. I decided to investigate further to see what evidence I could find of British usage of this particular quotation.

A first natural test for the editor of a dictionary of quotations is to see whether the item appears in major collections. In this case, looking through the volumes on my own shelves, the earliest appearances in British compilations I could find were from the 1990s.[2] Nigel Rees included it in his Cassell Companion to Quotations (Cassell, 1997), describing Brandeis as an “American jurist.” The quotation had also appeared the previous year in the Chambers Dictionary of Quotations (Chambers, 1996), but not under an entry for Brandeis (there was no such entry). “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” appeared there under the name of Edward Moore Kennedy, and the citation is from the New York Times report of a speech made by Senator Kennedy in 1990, on sponsoring legislation for the disclosure of graduation rates and crime figures on campus. It had evidently been picked up, unrecognised, and categorised as Kennedy’s own coinage. It is not until the twenty-first century that the quotation begins to appear more expectably in British collections, and when I looked at the wider evidence of British usage I found that this too was distinctly patchy.

The earliest usage I found was in a letter to the London Times by Lord Shawcross of 8 November 1977, relating to a speech he had recently made in Hong Kong on a proposed International Chamber of Commerce Code against extortion and bribery. His letter concluded: “I am sure that public discussion will be useful to the ICC which will surely not be pusillanimous in its fight against the growing evils of extortion and bribery. But as Brandeis said—Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” This type of reference suggests that Shawcross expected that the name of Brandeis would be instantly recognized. However, it is relevant to remember that Hartley Shawcross (1902–2003) was a barrister and politician, who had been appointed British Attorney-General in the first Labour government of 1945, and had been the lead British prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. He came from the same legal and political world in which the name of Brandeis would have both recognizable and significant. The usage is not necessarily evidence of wider public familiarity.

Twenty years later, the historian and constitutional expert Sir Vernon Bogdanor published a column in the Guardian newspaper of 4 July 1997 under the heading “Out with Club Government.” The topic of the article was the setting up of a Parliamentary inquiry into what became known as the “cash for questions affair” by an independent figure, something that was a significant alteration to the previous practice of self-regulation. However, while approving the change, Bogdanor still had some criticism for the new process. The inquiry had been held in private, whereas a statutory tribunal would have held public hearings. “This would have been more likely to clear the air than a private inquiry. As always, sunlight is the best disinfectant.” At this point, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” is being used as a known expression, without reference to Brandeis. This does not necessarily, of course, mean that Bogdanor was unaware of it, but it may well indicate that by 1997, at least in Britain, Brandeis’ name would have a much reduced resonance among the wider public. Later usages support this view, notably a column in the Daily Mail of 23 March 2015, by the paper’s political editor James Chapman, which appeared under the heading “Boris attacks gag on Whitehall officials.” Boris Johnson, at that time Mayor of London, was reported as criticising a proposed ban on civil servants speaking to journalists without checking with a minister. As the piece reported: “Mr. Johnson, a former journalist, told the Daily Mail: ‘I believe in maximum possible transparency. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, quotations from debates in the British Parliament where the quotation (with an attribution to Brandeis) can be found. Thus, in a debate on funding for political parties in the House of Commons, 22 June 1993, the Labour MP Peter Archer said, “There will always be temptations. The best guarantee against politicians falling into those temptations is openness. I commend to the House the dictum of the Supreme Court Justice Brandeis that sunlight is the best disinfectant. I hope that in all our political funding for all the parties we will be prepared to let in as much sunlight as possible.” Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in a debate on the Intelligence Services Bill in the House of Lords, 13 January 1994, is recorded explaining why his party, the Liberal Democrats, supported a particular motion: “I can explain why in a sentence. It is one from the great American jurist, Justice Louis Brandeis, who said: ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most effective policeman.’” These are both strong applications of the chosen quotation, but the usage can still be seen as having legal and political limitations. Archer and Lester were both lawyers, and a Parliamentary audience is not the general public.

The debate about the claims and counter-claims of privacy and free speech is an ongoing one, and likely to be of continuing and growing interest. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” is a pithy and useful way of expressing the view that transparency offers a corrective to possible corruption. However, it seems to me that viewed as a quotation originating in America, its usage is likely to vary slightly when it crosses the Atlantic. In American sources, the association with Brandeis retains its resonance, and is likely to be cited explicitly. In current British sources, on the other hand, it is more likely to appear rather as a modern proverb or saying than as an attributable quotation. Its appearance would not necessarily prompt the familiar question, Who said that?

-Elizabeth Knowles

[1] The article was collected the following year in Louis D. Brandeis Other People’s Money, and How the Bankers Use It. New York: Frederick A. Stokes & Co. 1914. The book was reissued in 1933.

[2] It is perhaps fair to note here that it did not make an early appearance in American collections; it was not, for instance, included in the fourteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1968), although it did appear in Suzy Platt’s Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations from the Library of Congress (1989).

In Memoriam: Ari Kernerman, April 13, 1929January 10, 2023

It’s so awkward to write an obituary about my father. At first, I rejected the idea, wishing to avoid going into father-son reminiscences, but then it became clear to me that—like it or not—I should do it, since in the lexicographic context I probably knew him better than anyone. Many of the background personal details here rely on a short biography he prepared for his 75th birthday anniversary and on detailed comments from my uncles. I’m most grateful to them for their help, as well as to Michael Rundell for his accompanying contribution.

Ari Kernerman laughing. He's a man with grey hair, a blue patterned tie with a pale yellow shirt and dark blazer, pictured in front of greenery.
Ari Kernerman, March 2019. (Photo courtesy of Ilan Kernerman.)

Roots, Youth, Music

Ari Kernerman was born in Toronto as Lionel, the third of six children. His parental grandmother claimed to be descended from the “Vilna Gaon” (Genius of Vilnius), who was the central figure in Jewish religion and culture in Lithuania and beyond in the 18th century. His parental grandfather had left Ukraine in 1897 to attend the first Zionist Congress in Basel, and went on to settle in England. Ari’s father was born in Portsmouth, grew up in London, immigrated to Canada at age 15 and brought the rest of his family after him. During the First World War he served with the British Army mainly in Egypt and Palestine. Ari’s mother, whose parents had come from Russia and Belorussia, was born in North Wales and moved at a young age with her family to Toronto.

Ari described his childhood as hapless. He had been a sickly child, handicapped with a serious stuttering impediment that he managed to cover up after many frustratingly difficult years. Obsessed with his own health and well-being, he believed such matters could be controlled through exercise and a regulated lifestyle. The Great Depression, which had brought painful financial hardship to his family, seemed to exacerbate his many difficulties. A dreamer who always felt different from others, Ari sought refuge in his music and in expressing his fascination with the natural world, astronomy and space travel. Later in the 1940s, together with his father and a group of rocket enthusiasts (including some U.S. rocket scientists), he established the Canadian Rocket Society. Eventually Ari became its Secretary.

He began playing the cello at the age of 7 and was soon able to join his two elder brothers (both of whom are still living) to form The Kernerman Trio. When he was 16 he was accepted into a professional symphony orchestra, but his musical activities soon interfered with his studies at high school. Although he had aspired to become a great cellist, he decided at 19 to drop everything and emigrate to Israel as a pioneer. Later in life he returned to music, which had remained his great passion, playing regularly with chamber ensembles and several orchestras, such as the Jewish Arab and the Emeritus orchestras, and participated in numerous masterclasses and workshops. After his death, friends organized a chamber music concert in his memory.

Three boys in dark suits seated before a white curtain. The boy on the left holds a violin, the boy in the center sheet music, the boy on the right a cello.
The Kernerman Trio, left to right Morrie, Dovie, Lionel (Ari); Toronto circa 1936-1938. (Photo courtesy of Ilan Kernerman.)

Pioneer, Teacher, Publisher

While still known as Lionel, Ari joined the Young Pioneer youth movement and trained for one year on an agricultural farm in Upstate New York. In 1950 he emigrated to Israel with his North American team, including brother Dovie, and together with immigrants from South America they established Kibbutz Kissufim in the Negev desert, facing the Gaza Strip. He then Hebraized his name to Ari, literally meaning lion. His job at the kibbutz was to drive a tractor and a bulldozer. While ploughing the field he drove over a mine that exploded, damaging his inner ear. He still managed to teach the cello, which he did at other kibbutzim as well. He left Kissufim after five years and spent another year at Kibbutz Yad Hanna, where he worked as a plumber, before moving to Tel Aviv. Ari would later say that this idealistic communal period in the kibbutz was the happiest in his life.

In Tel Aviv, he worked at a bank, where he happened to help a colleague prepare for the English matriculation exam. He got acquainted with the English curriculum, became a schoolteacher, and then obtained an academic degree and a formal teacher’s certificate. Gradually, as his career evolved, he became a senior English teacher, teacher trainer, textbook writer, and publisher. In 1968 he formed Kernerman Publishing (KP) with his youngest brother, Cyril.

According to Cyril, Ari always aimed for perfection, developing books of the highest quality which were professionally designed and impeccably bound. They originally added glosses at the end of their readers like add-ons, then moved them to the bottom of the pages. Finally they arrived at the idea of inserting the glosses in the margins opposite the word being defined. These were revolutionary ideas in the industry which made KP’s publications special. Soon, other local educational publishers followed suit.


In 1956 Ari met Ahuva Levi and they married a year later. She had been born in Iraq and fled to Palestine as a young teenager in 1945, hidden in a truck that crossed Jordan from Bagdad to Jerusalem. Her native language was Arabic, and at school she studied English, French and Hebrew, but after settling with her family in Tel Aviv and spending several months in a kibbutz, she was sent off to work and never continued her formal education. She raised three sons— Kevin, Ronen, and me—and eventually enjoyed the company of her grandchildren. Ahuva and Ari seemed to be total opposites but were joined together strongly by a bond of love and mutual respect for nearly sixty years. When she became ill, he nursed and took close care of her for several years until her death in 2014. It took him several years to overcome the loss and regenerate his life.

Lexicographic Innovation

During the 20th century, English Language Teaching (ELT) gradually evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry, largely dominated by major British publishers, such as the Cambridge and Oxford university presses, Longman, and Collins. Learner’s dictionaries have traditionally constituted a small, yet vital, part of ELT. Competition led to outstanding innovations that enlightened modern lexicography worldwide, most notably stemming from monolingual learner’s dictionaries (MLDs, since the 1930s) and corpus lexicography (namely since the publication of COBUILD, in 1987). The advent of MLDs, developed initially in Japan and India, was related to the Total Immersion (Direct Method) approach in foreign language learning, advocating learning English solely in English.

The third groundbreaking innovative milestone in ELT lexicography is often considered to be the semi-bilingual dictionary (SBD). Conceived by Ari and first launched by KP in Israel in 1986, its creation had been inspired by his personal rebellion against the Direct Method. Despite having no scientific proof for his position, Ari had relied on his own common sense and personal experience as both a teacher of English and a learner of Hebrew. He argued in favor of the primary role of the native language in foreign (or second) language learning, when the learner relies on something that is already familiar when learning something new, in a process of association.

The SBD was also referred to as a bilingualized dictionary, as it consisted of an MLD core with the addition of brief translation equivalents in the learner’s native language, one for each sense of the English entry. Although Ari had originally set off to compile a new English-English-Hebrew dictionary from scratch, he accepted the proposal of KP’s distributor Lonnie Kahn, who was also the local agent of Oxford University Press, to use an Oxford MLD as the base for this new dictionary. Oxford Student’s Dictionary for Speakers of Hebrew was a huge success both pedagogically and commercially; it’s one of Israel’s top bestselling books and has played a prominent part in transforming the Ministry of Education’s policy from teaching English in English only.

While various bilingual learner’s dictionaries had already existed, especially in East Asia but also elsewhere, the SBD laid a new systemic foundation. It was instrumental in shattering the taboo of avoiding the native language in the foreign language learning process, and since the 1990s diverse types of bilingual learner’s dictionaries mushroomed for English and other languages. In addition, Ari’s drive for learner-friendliness introduced more novel features, such as spacious page layout including starting each sense of the entry on a new line, removing the phonetic transcription which most Israeli users ignored, or adding a bilingual glossary from the learner’s language to English for production purposes.

KP purchased rights for SBD versions of MLDs from Chambers and Harrap in the UK, published an SBD for speakers of Arabic in 1987, and started to cooperate with leading publishers around the world on local language editions.

The Best Is Yet to Be

Ari began attending lexicographic conferences in the mid-1980s and rarely missed those of Euralex (where he served on the executive board for one term), DSNA, and Asialex. The last DSNA meeting he took part in was at Bloomington in 2019. Some attendees still recall his response after they had invited him to join them in taking the elevator: “Elevators are for young people” he proclaimed, before storming up the stairs.

Age, when considered as the convergence of longevity with well-being, had become an obsession with Ari. He wrote an online PhD thesis and published two books on the subject, studied the topic of centenarians and super-centenarians, and prepared to form a non-profit organization to advance this field of research. In view of his family’s relatively good genes (his father led a healthy life to nearly 102), he made plans to live to 120 and was worried about not having saved sufficient funds to maintain his good standard of living for three more decades. He always insisted on staying lucid and healthy, on keeping physically, intellectually, and socially active and, above all, on not being “old.”

However, at the end of a group trip to Georgia in October 2022, Ari suddenly became unwell. As a result, the pilot for the plane trip home refused to fly with him on board. When he pleaded to go because he feared he’d be refused insurance for future flights, the airport doctor came to check him and confirmed he was good to fly. Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, the pilot personally took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a tumor in the duodenum. The doctors could not get a full picture of his condition nor of the potential for complications but told him that, while they would not ordinarily operate on someone in his 90s, his physical condition was otherwise like that of a healthy 70-year-old. Therefore they were willing to make an exception and hoped for a favourable result. Ari answered simply “Let’s go.”

The operation was successful and his recovery was fairly smooth and fast, but two weeks after returning home from rehabilitation he suffered a heart attack. Now he was stented and hospitalized in the cardiac intensive-care unit, his recovery was slower and harder, and his superman self-image had become tarnished. After his release, he did not take his required medications properly, and this led to a second heart attack. Further intensive medical care turned out to be too challenging for his body and mind. He asked that treatment be stopped and that he be allowed to die peacefully.

After Ari’s death we found a brief manuscript from 2020 called The Joy of AgingThe Best Is Yet to Be. It summarizes his ideas and is described as a “concise guide to living longer, healthier and happier.…” The title quotes from the poem Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” The unedited text can be downloaded here.

-Ilan Kernerman

Ari Kernerman: An Appreciation

I recently went to an “immersive” exhibition of work by David Hockney. What was striking was how Hockney—now in his mid-80s—was so open to the potential of new technology and new media (much of his recent work has been produced on an iPad), and was always looking for new ways of representing the world he saw. He said he’d been painting for 60 years and was “still enjoying it immensely.”

Hockney has an admirably positive attitude towards getting older, but of course he is a mere youngster compared with Ari Kernerman, who died earlier this year at the age of 93. Ari too, as Ilan’s piece shows, never saw ageing as any kind of impediment—quite the reverse, in fact. I was saddened and shocked to learn of his passing: saddened for the obvious reasons, and shocked because I’d always assumed Ari to be immortal. He was a regular presence at dictionary conferences worldwide—immaculately turned out, engaged in the issues, and often with a younger woman on either arm and a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes the rest of us would be struggling with jetlag, but not Ari, who always looked as if he’d enjoyed a great night’s sleep and was ready for whatever the day might bring.

I can’t say I knew Ari well, but it was always a pleasure to run into him, usually at a conference. Among many fond memories, two stand out. As many conferencegoers will remember, Ari had strong views on example sentences in dictionaries, which he wasn’t slow to air whenever the occasion arose (or even when it didn’t). He always insisted he could invent better examples than anything that could be extracted from a corpus. In principle, this isn’t a position I would defend. But he did have a point, and he was right at least to question whether this was always the right approach. The fact that an example is “real” does not, per se, guarantee its pedagogical effectiveness, and I’ve seen plenty of corpus-derived examples that aren’t fit for purpose. And, as recent experiments have shown, Large Language Models seem to be especially inept at generating examples (despite the fact that they’ve been trained on “authentic” texts). I’m sure Ari could have effortlessly outperformed ChatGPT with his own inventions.

Another great memory, one I will always cherish, is of an evening spent with Ari in the bar of a Tokyo hotel. (This must have been during the Asialex conference in Chiba in 2003.) Adam Kilgarriff and I were having a drink when Ari spotted us and came to sit down. Over the next couple of hours, he kept us enthralled with the story of how he had arrived in Israel in 1950, and of the time he had spent working as a farmer on kibbutzim before raising a young family. This was during the first years of the state of Israel, clearly a time of great promise and idealism, and it was fascinating, and rather moving, to hear what life was like in those early days.

In pioneering the bilingualised dictionary, Ari made a really significant contribution to our field. He will be greatly missed, and I for one plan to follow the advice in his guide to ageing. If I ever start thinking of myself as “elderly,” I’ll remember Ari, and hear him saying “elderly schmelderly!”

-Michael Rundell

Upcoming Conferences

Upcoming Events

Euralex 40th Anniversary Online Lecture Series

Euralex announces: “To commemorate 40 years since its inception, EURALEX is organising a two-week online lecture series [October 4–13]. Presenters are past presidents of EURALEX. In their lectures they will address various topics, from dictionary use, historical lexicography, AI in lexicography, as well as the past and future of EURALEX.

“Each lecture/interview will be followed by a one-hour session with the presenter, aimed specifically at junior lexicographers, i.e., lexicographers at the beginning of their career, who will have an opportunity to ask questions, discuss their research/work, ask for advice, etc.”

Henry Bradley (1845-1923): A Celebration of His Life and Scholarship

The English Faculty, University of Oxford, is holding a celebration of the life and scholarship of OED editor Henry Bradley. Speakers include:

  • Charlotte Brewer, Professor of English, Hertford College, Oxford
  • Simon Horobin, Professor of English, Magdalen College, Oxford
  • Dr. Peter Gilliver, Executive Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
  • Lynda Mugglestone, Professor of the History of English, Pembroke College, Oxford
  • Tania Styles, Senior Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

The event is supported by the Philological Society.

Date: Friday, November 17 2023 15:00 – 18:00 GMT

Location: Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG, UK

Tickets (free):

Publication Information

The DSNA Newsletter is usually published twice a year, in the spring and fall. It is currently edited by Rachel Fletcher and Lindsay Rose Russell. Associate Editor is Peter Chipman. Member news items can be sent to

Our Executive Director is Lindsay Rose Russell.

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This issue: Vol. 47 No. 2 (2023)
Cumulative issue #96