As of Monday, January 21, 2002, for the first time, the slang heard in English taverns and the medieval legalese used in the markets of Geoffrey Chaucer’s time have been fastidiously catalogued - from abaciste (someone who operates and abacus) to zucarine (sugar-like).1 After 71 years and the efforts of 125 lexicographers, the complete text now runs in thirteen volumes to over15,000 pages - with over 55,000 entries, accompanied by 900, 000 examples of usage.2 There is a 28p. entry for ‘setten’ (to set). The entry for the medieval ‘cercle’ list the alternative spellings ‘cerkel’, ‘cerkil’, ‘sercle’, ‘serkel’, ‘cirkel’ – and then finally, circle. ‘Flother’ (snowflake), ‘grutchen’ (complain), ‘pank’ (sexual desire) and ‘swink’ (hard work) are all detailed at length as well.
Begun in 1930, the stated goal of the Middle English Dictionary (Robert E. Lewis, current ed.) was to include all meanings, grammatical forms, and spellings of all the words identified by a sampling of thousands of medieval English texts, taken from 1066 through 1400. They started with 200 researchers poring over all manner of material, for fifteen years, gathering quotes from literary mss., wills, diaries, treatises on botany, astronomy, bishops’ reviews of monasteries, alchemical textbooks, essays on hawking – i.e. anything they could get their hands on. This massive cull produced a card catalogue of more than 3, 000, 000 quotations which displayed regional or temporal alterations in meaning, spelling or punctuation.
In other words, in a cramped office space in Ann Arbor, Michigan, above a Cactus Jack’s bar and a bike shop,3 a team of medievalists have been huddled over scraps, cards and dusty tomes for over seven decades, in an effort to ‘document the English language from just after the Norman Conquest up to the introduction of the printing press’.4 Now completed (as of Jan 2002), the MED stands as a monumental research achievement and completes the largest work of English historical lexicography ever undertaken.
The Middle English Dictionary in its 13v. can be ordered from University of Michigan Press for $3, 162 US – while the Middle English Compendium (http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/m/mec/index.html) is an electronic version of the Middle English Dictionary (requires library subscription), a HyperBibliography of Middle English prose and verse, based on the MED bibliographies, and a Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse (these resources are freely accessible).
1Globe and Mail, D. Purgavie, “Chaucer would be chuffyt”, 21/01/2002, R1.
2 Originally funded by a 1930 University of Michigan grant of $20,000 annually, the dictionary was initially supposed to run 4000 p. Two decades later they were still hashing their way through the letter D – and single researchers were devoting more than a year to their articles on a single word. They apparently got bogged down especially badly around the letter S, which they finished in 1988. The total completion cost is now estimated to have run closer to $22 million – still a bargain for 71 years of academic research. Each of the 125 lexicographers would’ve come at an average cost of $ 2, 500/year, if they’d all been there for the whole show.
3 Why Ann Arbor? Why not Cambridge or Oxford? Apparently the British were a little exhausted in the 1920s, after fighting WWI and weathering the Great Depression – they simply didn’t have the resources at the time to take a run at compiling a supplemental dictionary for the language of medieval England. So, Sir William Craige, ed. OED, appealed to the Modern Language Association in the States, and the University of Michigan immediately offered to take the assignment. The University of Toronto, which took a similar assignment in 1970 to compile a Dictionary of Old English is only a third completed and isn’t scheduled for publication until 2019. So mark your calendar.
4 The reason medievalists, in lexicography and philology, traditionally mark off the printing press as an end date is that the language became more or less standardized as print technology spread. Before Gutenberg however, the language was still largely amorphous and evolving, particularly as French culture was absorbed into Britain. As a result, the period between 1066 and 1500 was the embryonic stage of the English language.
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