Long before MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and even the idea of social networking,
Hallie had started an unofficial online bulletin board for her alma mater, St. John’s
"My college is a unique community of avid book-lovers with a deep grounding in the
classics, thanks to our mandatory Great Books curriculum," explained Hallie. "Within
three hours of posting to my 600-member group, the advancement officer at my college
had lined up the perfect candidate: her high school friend who happened to be a
The friend and lexicographer was James Girsch, who told Hallie’s liaison, "You can
tell Hallie that I'm well trained in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Latin, French,
and German, with some Chinese in there and a little Polish too. Have picked up enough
Greek to write etymologies, etc."
He was also an associate editor of the Middle English Dictionary and the
senior lexicographer for the Thorndike Barnhart Dictionary series. Oh yes,
and in his spare time he’d been an etymologist for the Encarta World English Dictionary.
Thus began a fruitful collaboration between Hallie and James. "His task was to review
our definitions to ensure that they conformed to lexicographical standards," she
said. "But in his enthusiasm for the project, he went above and beyond, making notes
on interesting etymologies of words he felt should be included."
We recently asked James to tell us more about his work, and his work on Rare Words.
Highlights of our conversation:
Levenger Press: What was your role as lexicographical advisor to Rare Words?
James Girsch: I simplified sometimes and clarified - for our
purposes - the glosses harvested from dictionaries of all kinds - so
we were able to create our own semantic divisions and present this in a clear and
useful way, with the browsing reader in mind.
LP: "Glosses” meaning "definitions,” correct?
JG: Yes, they can have the same meaning. Lexicographers use "gloss,” I think,
to keep the distinction from a formal definition - species, genus, differentia - clear.
LP: You’re both a dictionary editor and an etymologist, and we note on your
C.V. that you actually read the complete Thorndike Barnhart Junior Dictionary
when you were working on it. What’s it like to read an entire dictionary?
JG: It’s great fun and extremely absorbing. You’re trying to establish a
consistent style, looking for new words that need to be included, watching carefully
for glosses that require revision or correction, encountering and learning unfamiliar
words, writing etymologies, and imposing what you think is a better order on the
LP: What were you looking for as you read it?
JG: First, current words whose glosses required revision to include very
new senses. The stuff known as plasma, for example, was not considered
a fourth state of matter in the edition of the dictionary we were revising. Thus
a new sense had to be added, or the present sense under the field label physics
had to be refined.
The compact disc was also new, and a new sense under disc
was written and given a numbered position in the entry.
An example of a completely new entry is Bose-Einstein condensate, whose existence
was predicted in the 1920s but first observed in 1995; thus in 1996, that term was
considered for inclusion because of its newly-achieved currency.
Second, obsolete and obsolescent words had to be deleted to make room for the new
entries. I remember arguing on behalf of keeping cabriolet and being overruled
by our wise managing editor, Deborah Posner. The dictionaries we are discussing
here are part of a series for elementary school, middle school, and high school.
There was a good argument for keeping cabriolet - it will not disappear
from any Henry James novel, for example, in which it appears, and students will
want to find it treated in an unabridged dictionary - but there was a better
argument for taking it out.
LP: Complete this sentence: "The most surprising thing about writing a dictionary
JG:The number of words that must be cut from the present edition or refused
admission to the new edition. One wants to include them all, all the time -
I do, anyway.
LP: You have a specialty in Middle English, having been an associate editor
of the Middle English Dictionary (the MED). What period does ME cover?
JG: The conventional dates for Middle English are AD 1100 to 1500 -
though they’re of course kind of arbitrary. The language of the earliest works included
in the MED cannot really be distinguished from Anglo-Saxon. The earlier date
is one generation after the Norman Conquest; by 1100, a significant number of words
from Norman French had become naturalized - part of the English language.
That explains the earlier date; the latter date is some 15 years after printing
had become well-established in England.
LP: Who were some foremost writers during this period?
JG: The most prominent author in ME is Chaucer - the first great English
poet. Another author who might be familiar to modern readers is John Gower, a friend
of Chaucer, who wrote important works in Middle English, French, and Latin.
John Lydgate, also known to Chaucer, produced numerous works of staggering length;
Lydgate was amongst the most celebrated English writers of the fifteenth century.
The name of Sir Thomas Mallory (ob. 1471), author of Le Morte d’Arthur, still
appears from time to time in movie credits. Much of the most significant Middle
English literature is, however, anonymous.
LP: Do any ME words remain intact today?
JG: Producing a precise answer to this question grew more complicated as I thought about
it. Some words that occur in the MED and survive in Present Day English morphologically
have lost their Middle English semantic identity - that’s one kind
of survival. A good example is algebra, which occurs in MED quotes
between ca. 1300 and 1425; its ME senses are logically connected to the word’s meaning
today, but that connection is not an obvious one. In the Middle English Dictionary,
algebra is glossed thus: "(a) The surgical treatment of fractures and dislocations,
bone-setting; (b) a fracture or dislocation.” That sense has expired - its
last appearance recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1623.
LP: What came before Present Day English?
JG: Present Day English, or PDE, is the successor to Modern English, which
goes back to the 17th century. Shakespeare’s English is referred to as Early Modern.
LP: What are your favorite words in Rare Words II, and why?
JG: Here are a few - like the selection of prominent ME writers, this
was a difficult task:
surd. Long a favorite; its Latin etymon is also the parent of absurd,
and in one sense, it denotes an irrational number.
haver. This brings back pleasant memories, as I worked with someone who
often urged me not to haver, by which she meant hesitate, be indecisive, hang around
waiting to do something. It could be a blend of hover and waver,
though every dictionary I’ve seen reports that its origin is unknown.
gadroon. Everyone loves words that end in oon - I think.
Also, it’s an architectural term, and I should know a good share of those, but I
did not know this one until I came across it while working on the book. Moreover,
the etymology is interesting - it’s ultimately developed from Latin gutta,
a drop (hence gutter).
hircine. It’s a word that pertains to goats, and it’s a word that I will
need to use sometime this spring.
grume. This is a favorite because when I first encountered it some years
ago, I looked it up, and during the next couple of days I saw again it five or six
times in other works. That phenomenon is always intriguing.