BMCR 2020.11.11

Liddell and Scott: the history, methodology, and languages of the world’s leading lexicon of Ancient Greek

, , , Liddell and Scott: the history, methodology, and languages of the world's leading lexicon of Ancient Greek. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 453. ISBN 9780198810803. $115.00.

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

In my classics form room at school, there was one copy of Liddell-Scott-Jones’ Greek lexicon in which a pupil had laboriously written on the top corner of every page for hundreds of pages “To the joke”, along with an arrow pointing forward—testimony, I suspect, to a detention or some other period of grimly boring incarceration. At the end of this page-turning journey was the famous lemma “sukophantes: derivation from sukos is a mere figment”. This may not be the best joke in the world, even to a schoolboy, but at least it had a touch of the insider to it, as you did have to know that sukos meant fig. And, unlike the inimitable Dr Johnson’s dictionary, there are not many jokes in this lexicon. LSJ, as it is universally known, is part of every classicist’s training, part of our furniture of the mind. Like many others, I also remember the formative experience of looking up a word from Aristophanes, and getting a definition in Latin, going to the Latin dictionary, and getting a word in a medicalized English that looked more Latin than the Latin, which sent me to the English dictionary. Oh that… Granted that there has been much recent work on commentaries, dictionaries and works of reference, not just in classical reception but also more broadly across 19th-century studies in particular, the time is ripe for a full-scale treatment of the history, methodology and impact of this truly foundational book.

Liddell and Scott, edited by Christopher Stray, a sociologist, Michael Clarke, a literary critic, and Joshua Katz, an expert in linguistics, aims to look at the LSJ as cultural and intellectual product—with Stray leading on the history of the book; Clarke, the methodology and literary implications; and Katz, the philology and linguistics. It is a book that is fascinating—full of detailed and intelligent appraisal and analysis—and frustrating, for the questions not broached and the avenues not pursued. The twenty-one chapters of the book, mainly by very senior figures in the field of classics, are organized into four sections, namely, the history and constitution of the lexicon; what the periods and genres of evidence are for the lexicon (which continues the first section with a slightly different trajectory); the lexicon’s methodology and its problems – the most hard-hitting section; and – the most catch-all and least satisfactory section – comparisons in time and space: this is far too grand a title for what contains the thinnest and the most blinkered material, which at no point considers a proper frame of comparison with lexica outside classics, except for a brief final trot through a connection with the OED, nor does it move outside the nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Let us begin with the sociology. Stray sets the scene for the volume. It is a characteristically well-informed piece, with brief sections on the religious background in the conflicts of the Anglican university, the turn to English rather than Latin, the publishing history of its first eight editions, and the personal interaction of the two writers of the dictionary. There is more that could be said about the role of English, the politics of Anglo-Saxonism, for example, which Margaret Williamson picks up on, or the role of Elizabethan literature in the construction of what the “classics” are for this period. And there is certainly a lot more to be written on the intertwined relation between theology and philology at this time.[1] But as an introduction this piece does lay out the map of the territory well: religion, cultural politics, the role of institutions of publishing as well as learning, the situated personal history of scholars are integral to the history of this lexicon.

If all translators are traitors, dictionaries are the most seductive and dangerous double agents of this murky world, for all the world looking as though they have the answers while carefully concealing their selectivity, guess-work and half-hearted attempts at recognizing the constant flexibility and persuasive hooliganism of literary language. Should a dictionary try for a translational gloss, even a short article, or should it aim for a lexicographic definition? The philologists in this volume all insist that the lexicographic definition is the right route to follow. Yet there are plenty of indications in the book that this choice is not so simple. Much of LSJ started out as a translation of the German dictionary of Passow; the English translates the German before the Greek, and the strain often shows. When it comes to a word like mêtis, however, as Evelien Bracke shows in a particularly poised chapter, the translation from the German to English is feeble to start with, and there is a striking difference of understanding between even the modern lexicographers and the influential analysis of Detienne and Vernant of this key term. To what degree should the definition of mêtis include a notion of power, integral to Detienne and Vernant’s understanding—but quite missing in the sense of “the faculty of advising”, “wisdom”, or even “cunning”, LSJ’s offerings? Similarly, Amy Coker in a blunt discussion of obscenity, does the best job that could be made to defend LSJ’s strategies of reticence when she suggests that sens. obsc. allows each generation to add its own slang and therefore the dictionary does not go out of date. But to define kusthos as “pudendum muliebre” is just plain wrong. Pudendum muliebre may refer to the same anatomical part, but it is a wholly inadequate linguistic rendering of kusthos. Is not register an integral part of usage and thus of meaning? This sociology of definitional choices is not fully enough explored in Liddell and Scott—especially, with regard to what the implications for the field have been. There is a marvellous model in Naomi Tadmor’s The Social Universe of the English Bible[2] in which she shows for the King James bible how the choices of the translators about the basic terms of their translation were deeply ideological and essential to the success of the volume. How such choices in LSJ have affected the field is nowhere more salient than with Christianity. On the one hand, as Patrick James puts it starkly, “LSJ’s treatment of New Testament Greek is superficial, shoddy and shambolic”. On the other hand, their dismissal of later Greek texts, especially those from within a Christian framework, distorts the whole history of Greek. Nonnus’ Dionysiaca gets in by the end, but the Paraphrase, Nonnus’ 21-book verse paraphrase of the Gospel of John, is simply ignored—as if the languages of these two epics written by the same man were not dynamically interrelated. Liddell and Scott does not consider adequately why these choices were made and with what impact on the still uneasy separation of philology and theology, the classical past and the Christian past. It is still extremely hard to read large swathes of material in Greek written by Jews and Christians if you rely on LSJ. It is impossible to trace the interaction between koine, marginal groups, the growing power of Christianity, the shifts in religious language from the third century BCE through to the sixth century CE, using this tool. LSJ is part of what defines the classical canon and our privileged engagement with it. LSJ, that is, has played a significant role in the organization of our field, as well as of our philology.

Another question for what Anne Thompson self-servingly calls “true lexicographic definitions” is exposed by David Goldstein’s discussion of the particle ge. Is it adequate, he asks pertinently, even to try to give a translation such as “at least”, when so much of the work that ge does is performative or pragmatic (in the linguistic sense)? Shouldn’t a lexicon tells us what ge does, before it tries to say what it means? Goldstein’s chapter thus raises—at least—a large question about the gap between doing and meaning, function and sense. Too many of the contributions by the philologists in this volume, however, do no more than take LSJ to task for not doing well enough on particular entries or clusters of entries without hazarding what any broader implications of such corrections might be (the last section of the volume is particularly guilty, but the section on “periods and genres of evidence” also tends to run scared of any bigger picture). The most consistently engaging section thus is on methodology and its problems, where each of the authors makes a serious, thoughtful argument with real implications beyond the local hazards of a false etymology (Katz’s anxiety) or the right translation of medical terms (Elizabeth Craik’s bailiwick): Michael Clarke on whether a lexicon entry should aim to provide a unified account based on an ur-meaning; Goldstein on ge; James Clackson on how diachronic taxonomy in Greek vocabulary can help explore some very basic categories of thought; and Michael Silk on what the principles of lexicography for specifically literary texts should be (mostly material first published many years ago); together let us see how much more sharply the broad questions raised by the philology of most of the linguistics chapters could have been formulated.

The late Martin West, who was responsible for bringing Nonnus’ Dionysiaca into a proper focus for LSJ, reminds the reader that with LSJ “fortunately, what we have is a work of remarkably high quality”. (He also tells us that for people of real discrimination the finest Greek lexicon is Wilhelm Crönert’s revision of Passow—though since this lexicon did not get beyond ana- it is less likely to be of such pervasive utility as LSJ.) We will continue to use LSJ and will often turn to it with the comforting sense of recognition that an old tool, that fits the hand, will provide. But what Liddell and Scott lets us see is how much more care and attention we need to pay to how LSJ has been constructed and what its impact and limitations are. LSJ matters because it is a work of “remarkably high quality” and therefore has had such a huge impact on the field. But it is very far from a neutral lens onto ancient Greek: its linguistic theory, its style of translation, its organization of material constitute a culturally and historically embedded agenda. It would be nice to imagine that when we teach our students about the tools of our trade, it will include not just the necessary recognition of the limitations of the philology in LSJ—from its first principles through to its detailed analyses of meaning—but also a discussion about the politics which its organization has bequeathed to our field.

Authors and titles

Christopher Stray, “Liddell and Scott in Historical Context: Victorian Beginnings, Twentieth-Century Developments”
Margaret Williamson, “Dictionaries as Translations: English in the Lexicon”
David Butterfield, “Latin in the Lexicon”
Amy Coker, “Obscenity: a Problem for the Lexicographer”
Joshua T. Katz, “Etymology and Etymologies in the Lexicon”
Brent Vine, “Incorporating New Evidence: Mycenaean Greek in the Revised Supplement
Tom Mackenzie, “A Canonical Author: the Case of Hesiod”
Christopher Rowe, “Philosophy and Linguistic Authority: the Problem of Plato’s Greek”
Elizabeth Craik, “Medical Vocabulary, with Especial Reference to the Hippocratic Corpus”
Patrick James, “The Greek of the New Testament”
Mark Janse, “The Ancient, the Medieval and the Modern in a Greek-English Lexicon, or How to Get your Daily ‘Bread’ Any Day through the Ages”
Philomen Probert, “Greek Dialects in the Lexicon”
Evelien Bracke, “Between Cunning and Chaos: Μῆτις”
Michael Clarke, “Looking for Unity in a Dictionary Entry: a Perspective from Prototype Theory”
David Goldstein, “Discourse Particles in LSJ: a Fresh Look at Γε”
James Clackson, “LSJ and the Diachronic Taxonomy of the Greek Vocabulary”
Michael Silk, “Literary Lexicography: Aims and Principles”
Michael Meier-Brügger, “Lessons learned During my Time at the Lexicon frühgriechischen Epos
Martin L. West, “Diminishing Returns and New Challenges”
Anne Thompson, “Βάπτω: an Illustration of the State of our Ancient Greek Dictionaries”
John Considine, “Liddell and Scott and the Oxford English Dictionary


[1] See Catherine Conybeare and Simon Goldhill (eds.), Classical Philology and Theology: Disavowal, Entanglement  and the God-Like Scholar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[2] Naomi Tadmor, The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society and Culture in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).