The Genesis of that Immortal Lexicon

Henry L. Thompson: Henry George Liddell, A Memoir

“There is, however, a tradition that the authors were first encouraged to their task by the suggestion of William Sewell, then Fellow of Exeter and a leading Oxford Tutor, known afterwards as Founder and third Warden of Radley College. Sewell is reported to have met Liddell at a gathering of some Essay Club in Oxford, at which the subject of Greek Lexicography was discussed, and to have urged him to undertake the task of compiling a Greek-English Lexicon. Undoubtedly Sewell was well able to judge of the ability of Liddell and Scott to perform such a work, for he had but lately examined them both for their Degree: and the need of a new Lexicon was universally acknowledged. It is certain that Gaisford gave the writers constant encouragement: and his own example would have been a powerful incentive to the two young Students of Christ Church. In a letter to Vaughan Liddell writes:

‘Sewell thinks the Oxford mind is running too much to pure Theology: if you think so too, and also like him regret it, you will be glad to hear that some of us are — in all likelihood — about to close an engagement with Talboys for a Lexicon founded chiefly on Passow; indeed I dare say it will be nearly a translation. This sentence is rather arrogant, for the “some of us,” after all, is only Scott and myself. At present you need say nothing about it. The Dean encourages the project very much, and has given us a number of valuable hints.’

It is indeed a matter of surprise that such a work had not already been done. We can scarcely understand how — without some such help — the average student in those days was able to fight his way through Greek authors. Till a very few years previously, there had been no such book as a Greek-English Lexicon; Greek was interpreted to the English reader only through the medium of the Latin tongue. One can still remember Schrevelius, Hederic, and Scapula as the ultimate authorities at school; and formidable volumes they were. Some poor attempts had been recently made to provide a Greek-English Lexicon by Donnegan, Dunbar, and Giles; but none of these books was at all adequate to the requirements of scholars: they were unscientific in the treatment of words, and suffered from lack of methodical arrangement, and redundancy of English equivalents; or else from over-brevity. In Germany, however, a better type of Lexicon had been published by F. Passow, based upon the profound work of his elder colleague Schneider. Schneider, who was Professor and Chief Librarian at Breslau, had, at the beginning of the century, issued a Greek-German Lexicon, which he subsequently enlarged and improved. This became the standard work in Germany. It was a monument of industry and learning; but it suffered from lack of methodical arrangement. It was reserved for Passow, a pupil of Jacobs and Hermann, and himself a Professor at Breslau, to make use of the materials provided by Schneider, and to exhibit them in orderly and instructive arrangement.

‘His leading principle was to draw out, wherever it was possible, a kind of biographical history of each word, to give its different meanings in an almost chronological order, to cite always the earliest author in which a word is found — thus ascertaining, as nearly as may be, its original signification — and then to trace it downwards, according as it might vary in sense and construction, through subsequent writers.’

In order to carry out this plan, Passow spent his first efforts upon Homer and Hesiod, and in subsequent editions added an examination of the Ionic prose of Herodotus; but his early death in 1833, at the age of forty-six, prevented the completion of a wider undertaking.

It was upon this work of Passow that the new Oxford Lexicon was avowedly based: and in the first three editions his name appeared on the title page. But from the outset a vast amount of additional work was found necessary. The Preface to the first edition is now so little known that it may be well to quote from it the authors’ description of the task which they undertook:

‘We at first thought of a translation of Passow’s work, with additions. But a little experience showed us that this would not be sufficient. Passow indeed had done all that was necessary for Homer and Hesiod, so that his work has become a regular authority in Germany for the old Epic Greek. But he had done nothing further completely. For though in the fourth edition he professes to have done for Herodotus the same as for Homer, this is not quite the case. He had done little more than use Schweighauser’s Lexicon — which is an excellent book, and leaves little of the peculiar phraseology of Herodotus unnoticed, but is very far indeed from being a complete vocabulary of the author. One of us, accordingly, undertook to read Herodotus carefully through, adding what was lacking to the margin of his Schweighauser. The other did much the same for Thucydides. And between us we have gone through the Fragments of the early Poets, Lyric, Elegiac, &c., which were not in the Poetae Minores of Gaisford; as well as those of the early Historic and Philosophic writers; and those of the Attic, Tragic, and Comic Poets, which were dispersed through Athenaeus, Stobaeus, &c. . . . But besides all our own reading and collections, we have made unfailing use of the best Lexicons and Indexes of the great Attic writers — Wellauer’s of Aeschylus, Ellendt’s of Sophocles, Beck’s of Euripides, Caravella’s of Aristophanes, Ast’s of Plato, Sturz’s of Xenophon, with Reiske’s and Mitchell’s of the Attic Orators. The reader will see by this that we have thrown our chief strength on the phraseology of the Attic writers. We have also sedulously consulted Bockh’s Index to Pindar; and for Hippocrates, who ought to be closely joined with Herodotus, we have used Foesius’ CEconomia, with the references in the Index of the Oxford Scapitla. After the Attic writers, Greek undergoes a great change; which begins to appear strongly about the time of Alexander. Aristotle’s language strikes us at once as something quite different from that of his master Plato, though the change of styles cannot be measured quite chronologically: as, for instance, Demosthenes was contemporary with Aristotle; yet his style is the purest Attic. Here, as in painting, architecture, &c., there are transition periods — the old partly surviving, the new just appearing. But the change is complete in Polybius, with the later Historic writers, and Plutarch. We have therefore not been anxious to amass authorities from these authors, though we have endeavoured to collect their peculiar words and phrases. For Aristotle, we have used Sylburg’s Indexes, and those in the Oxford editions of the Rhetoric and Ethics ; for Theophrastus, Schneider’s Index; for Polybius (of course) Schweighauser’s Lexicon; for Plutarch, Wittenbach’s Index. Attic phraseology revives more or less in Lucian; but for that reason most of his phrases have earlier examples, though in some of his works (as the Verae Historiae, Tragopodagra, Lexiphanes, &c.), many new or rare words occur. We have taken them from Geel’s Index to the edition of Hemsterhuis and Reiz. But in these, and writers of a like stamp, we have seldom been careful to add the special reference, being usually content with giving the name of the author. Another class of writers belongs to Alexandria. We have not neglected these. The reader will find the Greek of Theocritus pretty fully handled; and he will not turn in vain to seek the unusual words introduced by the learned Epic school of that city, Callimachus, Apollonius, &c., or by that wholesale coiner Lycophron. We have also been careful to notice such words as occur first, or in any unusual sense, in the Alexandrian version of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament. We must not omit to mention, that in the first part, viz., from B to K inclusive, we have been saved much labour, and have very much enriched our Lexicon, by consulting Hase and Dindorf’s new edition of Stephani Thesaurus. We only wish we could have had their assistance for the whole.’

Such was the task undertaken by two young men, who, though at the outset fairly at leisure, soon found that they were able to devote to it only those few hours of each day which could be spared from other duties.”

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2 responses

  1. It’s unbelievable to think of the Herculean task they undertook, as well as the knowledge necessary to do it, let alone the almost crippling lack of time they had. I wonder if the necessity fomented by the lack of a lexicon made students better Hellenists, or if that’s just fanciful thinking. I significantly doubt whether I could have survived my copy of Lyrica Graeca Selecta, let alone Homer, without their work. They should be in the acknowledgments section of every Classics department’s monographs.

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