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Slips

What are lexicographic 'slips'?

They are the records of all the textual passages which are cited in a lexicon's entries. Traditionally, every citation was written on a separate 'slip' of paper, which was then filed with the others illustrating the same headword.

But I thought that this lexicon was designed for students, and does not cite specific passages, as Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) does?

True, but we do note word meanings in different authors. And, more importantly, we consult the texts as we write the lexicon entries. The citations show how each word is used, and so provide the 'raw material' which we use to determine the meanings.

Why don't you just copy the meanings from an existing dictionary, such as LSJ?

Because LSJ, though giving wonderful references, does not give very precise definitions. Most of its entries just give a selection of single-word translations, which do not give a full description of the range of a word's meanings, and the ways in which they may change over time.

Additionally, new words, and new senses of words already known, have been discovered since the publication of LSJ and its Supplements. So we need to look at the textual sources, to ensure that we get the meanings right.

Do all dictionaries use 'slips'?

All scholarly and historical dictionaries use illustrative quotations. However, the way they are collated may differ according to circumstances. The citations used in LSJ were gathered over more than a century, accumulated during the eight previous editions of the lexicon which were edited by Liddell and Scott. And their first edition of 1843 took many of its citations from Franz Passow's Handwörterbuch der griechischen Sprache of 1831, which itself drew on Johann Schneider's Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch of 1819. The only record of all the passages cited is represented by the brief quotations in LSJ itself.

The Oxford English Dictionary gathered its vast collection of slips in one massive logistical operation over a period of 50 years, by calling on the services of thousands of volunteer scholars throughout England and abroad. For examples of slips written by J.R.R. Tolkien and others, see the OED web site.

murrayHere is a picture of the OED 'scriptorium', where the case to the left of the Editor, James Murray, contains some of the slips which he and his team used as they wrote the entries.

Here's James Murray's description of how the slips were used when writing an entry:

'Only those who have made the experiment, know the bewilderment with which editor or sub-editor, after he has apportioned the quotations ... and furnished them with a provisional definition, spreads them out on a table or on the floor where he can obtain a general survey of the whole ... shifting them about like pieces on a chess-board, striving to find in the fragmentary evidence of an incomplete historical record, such a sequence of meanings as may form a logical chain of development' ('The President's Address for 1884', Transactions of the Philological Society, 1882-4, 510-11).

What has happened to these slips?

The Oxford English Dictionary slips are stored in an archive, where they can still be consulted by the current Oxford editorial team. However, slips from LSJ have not been preserved, for the reasons given above, so we have had to start again from scratch.

Do you have thousands of volunteers to collect the slips, or do you look them up in an electronic database like the Thesaurus linguae graecae (TLG)?

We have a small team, so we have to use electronic means. However, it would be much too time-consuming to look up every citation separately, even using the TLG. We need to have some way of collecting all of them in an electronic archive, so we can instantly retrieve all the citations for each word.

Does such an archive exist?

We have developed one, in conjunction with Professor Jeff Rydberg-Cox of the Perseus Project. Jeff has built the database, by using texts from the Perseus library and the TLG, linking them with English translations where possible, and collecting them under each word that will be in our lexicon.

Surely it would be impossible to examine EVERY instance of a particular word? Isn't there a way of making a representative selection?

Every dictionary must to some extent draw upon the work of its predecessors, so we first collect all the citations used by LSJ. But we need to be able to check the other citations too (especially those in later authors like Plutarch and Polybius), and to take account of new discoveries, like the texts of Menander, and so we also collect all attestations from the authors in our corpus.

So the database must be very big, then?

The current draft would fill 30 CD-ROMs. In comparison, the one TLG CD-ROM contains most of Ancient Greek literature. There is necessarily a lot of redundancy in our database (because every sentence illustrating one of our headwords must appear again for each of the other headwords that it contains). And, as described below, the passages in the database are also linked to the Perseus digital library.

What does the database look like?

Here's the top of the first page of the database for the word theatron: [Click to open in a new window.]

What does this show?

The box at the top shows that this is page 1 out of 5, for this word. One page is for LSJ citations, and four for the others. All pages appear twice: with and without English translations.

The second box, titled 'Frequency Summary', gives the totals of citations by author, with LSJ citations separated from the others. There are 9 citations from LSJ (omitting some inscriptions and authors like Porphyrius who are not covered in our lexicon), and 156 others. There is a category for 'Ambiguous Citations', where the automated search tool has encountered inflectional forms that might belong to different words.

Finally, the citations are listed. The page is quite long, and so only the first two citations are given here, starting with Herodotus 6.67, the first citation in LSJ (we list these citations in LSJ order, for ease of reference).

At the start of the Greek and English passages, small red or blue lines may be seen. These are links to the complete text, so that we can read more, if we need.

Is there a more user-friendly way to view this?

The citations from LSJ can also be viewed as what we call a 'weave': that is, intercalated into the LSJ article itself, at the appropriate places. This can be seen, for the same word 'theatron', here: [Click to open in a new window.] 

What are the advantages of this view?

It is not only much easier to view the citations in context, but it is also much more informative. Firstly, it gives us a check on accuracy: we can very easily see whether any citations are missing. Secondly, it gives us more semantic information: we can compare the LSJ translations with the whole passage, and so judge the accuracy of their explanations.

The future

This database is in use now, and has proved indispensible for consulting the texts as we write the lexicon entries. It would not have been possible to write the lexicon without it.

If it were itself published, it could empower readers, by allowing them to see the wider textual context underlying the LSJ citations. They would then no longer be just passive readers, but would be in a position to engage actively with the information being presented. Consequently, this database is much more than an archive of lexicographic 'slips': it is a semantically-organised digital library, in which the 'weave' pages constitute the first systematic display of LSJ 'slips'.

We believe that the database will therefore be of interest to other classical researchers, and we hope to make a draft more widely available.

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