Biography and life-writing act as common metaphors in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the principles of historical lexicography which it adopted. As Richard Chenevix Trench stressed in his 1857 lectures (which laid the foundation of the OED), the idea of lexical biography established new imperatives for the proper documentation of the English lexicon: for each word, he stated, "as we hailed it in the cradle, we may follow it, when dead, to the grave". Life-writing, in this model, demanded empirical and inductive engagement in which the descriptive neutrality of the writer is salient. "The word [is] made to exhibit its own history and meaning", as James Murray repeatedly affirmed. Nevertheless, if biography offers a convenient metaphor for the narrative acts of historical lexicography, it also serves to reveal conspicuous problems. Against the easy certainties proposed by Trench, it is clear that questions of both birth and death would, in reality, present often intractable difficulties in making the OED. Other aspects of life-history and development - and the temptations of normative or regulative biography on a variety of levels, both structural and ideological - can prove equally challenging. As this paper suggests, which lives get written, and how they are told, raises important questions of culture, ideology, and hierarchical value as manifested in the OED, in both past and present.
Selected Proceedings of the 2012 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 3)
edited by R. W. McConchie, Teo Juvonen, Mark Kaunisto, Minna Nevala, and Jukka Tyrkkö
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