The University Record, April 23, 2001

Long-awaited Middle English Dictionary is definitive resource

From News and Information Services

Mary Jane Williams, associate research editor, Middle English Dictionary, uses a sorting board to organize cards that illustrate varied definitions and uses of the same word. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
Finally at an end in its print and electronic forms, the Middle English Dictionary (MED)—a massive, 71-year-old project that has been called “the greatest achievement in medieval scholarship in America” and “the most important single project . . . in English historical linguistics being carried out anywhere today”—is now available to literary and linguistic scholars, historians, and those just curious about another time. The monumental task, begun in 1930 at the University with donations from the Oxford English Dictionary and Cornell University of their collections of Middle English slips, presents the vocabulary, fully documented, of the period 1100–1500.

The early years (1930–45) were devoted primarily to a reading program in which quotations supplementing the original donations were extracted from a wide variety of Middle English texts, including Bibles, letters, diaries and legal documents. Scientific treatises in astronomy, botany, mathematics, alchemy and medicine also were read in order to include a technical vocabulary not appearing in literary texts. Some 200 readers pored through these materials, making “citations” on slips of paper. Time consuming? Yes, but without such citations, there could be no reliable basis for making a dictionary of the period.

A citation usually would consist of a line or two copied onto a slip, or sometimes a whole paragraph or stanza cut from a copy of a book. These slips were organized alphabetically by headword in boxes 15 inches long and 7 inches wide, each of which could hold up to 4,000 slips. More than 3 million slips have been prepared in this way as the raw material for the MED.

Before editing could begin, preferred manuscripts and editions were selected for each text cited, manuscripts were dated, dates of composition were determined, abbreviated references were styled for clarity and conciseness, and a bibliography was prepared. The editing began in earnest in 1946, and the editors usually made use of “sorting boards,” tiered wooden devices with slots that allowed the slips to be arranged in various groupings. What seems today a rather outmoded method actually proved to be more useful than a computer for the editing process.

Publication began in 1952 with the letter E, and over the long history of the project, the system of producing final copy changed from a typewriter-generated system to a computer-assisted system, with a corresponding increase in the frequency with which the published parts (called “fascicles”) appeared. There are now 114 of these fascicles in the MED proper, and the 115th and final one (X–Z) will be completed next month.

Reading, sorting, editing, reviewing, keyboarding, proofing and printing have resulted in a dictionary of 13 volumes containing some 15,000 pages, some 55,000 separate entries and more than 900,000 illustrative quotations from both the technical and specialized vocabularies of the period and the more general and literary ones.

“The MED should never have to be redone,” says current Editor-in-Chief Robert E. Lewis, “only supplemented periodically to cover newly edited texts, to correct inadequacies and omissions, and to revise definitions as scholars uncover new information on medieval life, culture and technology.” It is now, and “will continue to be,” he adds, “the definitive treatment of its subject long into the future.”