Writings > Lexical Leavings


An unsigned article from the New Englander of February 1860:
   HINTS ON LEXICOGRAPHY.―Lexicography, in its leading branch, namely, the development of the meaning of words, belongs to a department of the study of language, which is passed over in our common grammars. It may be called semasiology, or the doctrine concerning the signification of words.
   Notwithstanding there is much discussion arising from the "war of the dictionaries," yet we rarely see any definite statement of the general principles which should guide the lexicographer in deducing and defining the different meanings of words.
   The transitions from one meaning of a word to another correspond, for the most part, to the tropes, or what Dr. Becker calls the figures of the logical thought. These figures are the synecdoche, metonymy, metaphor, and personification. Indeed these transitions, as exhibited in the dictionary of a language, may be regarded as faded or dormant figures.
   In synonymic, on the contrary, two distinct words approach very near in signification, and do not stand even in a tropical relation to each other; hence they must be permitted to run into each other, or be separated by refined and sometimes artificial distinctions.
   Words often pass synecdochically from the species to the genus, as bread for food in general; from the subordinate part or member to the whole, as a hand for a workman or agent; or from the constituent part to the whole, as soul for a person.
   Words often pass metonymically from the abstract to the concrete, as government for persons exercising the government; from the instrument to the thing produced, as the tongue for speech; from the container to the thing contained, as a cup for the contents of the cup; from the sign to the thing signified, as a scepter for royal authority; from parts of the human body to powers seated there, as the heart for the affections; from the place where an article is made to the article itself, as Champagne for wine of Champagne; or from the material of which the thing is made to the thing itself, as irons for fetters.
   Words pass metaphorically from one meaning to another, wherever there is a resemblance or analogy, real or supposed; as, paradise for heaven;uprightness for righteousness;transgression for sin.
   Words are often used by way of personification, or acquire more or less the attributes or powers of persons; as, wisdom teaches; prudence guards.
   More particularly we have in notional words the following changes of meaning.
   The names of physical objects are often transferred to constellations, on account of their supposed resemblance; as, the ram, the balance.
   The names of animals are often transferred to machines or instruments or parts of them, on account of their resemblance in form or use; as, a horse, for sawing wood; a ram, an engine of war.
   The names of the parts of animals are often transferred to plants, on account of a supposed resemblance; as, foxtail, buckshorn.
   The names of animal members are often transferred to inanimate ob-ects, on account of a similarity of use or relation; as, a tooth of a saw or comb; the foot of a mountain or column.
   Activities and attributes of living objects are often ascribed to inanimate objects, on account of their analogy; as, a dead color; a dead coal; living water; quicksilver.
   Words belonging to the vegetable kingdom are often transferred to the animal; as, a branch of a family; stock of cattle.
   The name of an external action is often used by an association of ideas to denote the internal feeling; as, inclination, aversion.
   Many words, originally of a good sense, acquire by association and usage a bad sense; as, boor, vi etymologiae, "a husbandman," and in malo sensu, "a person of rude manners;" clown, vi originis, "a husbandman," and in malo sensu, "a person of rude manners."
   Words are often transferred from one of the five senses to another; as, bitter cold; smooth notes; rough tones. These transitions rest on a perceived analogy.
   Intellectual and moral ideas are expressed by physical terms, on account of a perceived analogy; as, to conceive, to comprehend, to deduce, to infer. This is a very productive source of new significations.
   There is a strong disposition in man, arising perhaps from his social feelings, to give to the birds and quadrupeds, with which he is most conversant, the proper names of human beings; and these names have occasionally passed, by a synecdoche, from the individual to the species or genus; as, guillemot, (a French diminutive of the proper name William,) applied to a species of water-fowl; colin, (a French form of the proper name Nicolas,) applied to a species of partridge or quail; martin, (a proper name derived from the god Mars,) applied to a species of swallow; renard, (Germ. Reinhard, a Christian name,) a name applied to the fox in poetry and fable; reineke, (another form of Renard,) applied first in German to the fox, and then in German and English to a celebrated ancient Flemish poem. This usage is more common in other dialects; comp. Scottish Lowrie, (as if little Laurence,) applied to the fox; Germ. petz, (as if little Peter,) applied to the bear; and French bertrand, applied in poetry to the ape.
   These different senses, as they fall in different spheres, are easily distinguished from each other in actual usage.
   Form-words suffer frequent transitions of meaning, either by passing from one column to another; or by passing from one row or series to another; see the Table of Correlative Particles, as given in grammatical works.
   Demonstratives sometimes become relatives; as, that, demonst. and relat.; as, demonst. and relat. Interrogatives are often used as relatives; as, who, what, where, when. Interrogatives are sometimes used as indefinites; as, what, where, how. The construction, and especially the intonation, makes the meaning clear. These different meanings should constitute distinct articles in a dictionary.
   Adverbs of manner are employed to express intensity; as, so, how, as.
   Prepositions, originally denoting place, pass to the notation of time, coalition, causality, etc. as, from, for. In these different uses of prepositions, there is a great economy of language.
   When words are transferred from one part of speech to another, without internal change of vowel, and without suffixes or prefixes, the change of meaning should be succinctly stated, and the words should appear as distinct articles.
   Derivative verbs in English are sometimes formed from substantives, and adopt that meaning which most readily presents itself.
   1. Signifying to be the thing denoted by the noun of subject; as, to barber, to be a barber; to tailor, to be a tailor.
   2. Signifying to do the action denoted by the noun; as, to dream, to hunger, to thirst, from the nouns, dream, hunger, thirst.
   3. Signifying to act upon the thing denoted by the noun in some obvious manner; as, to fish, to catch fish; to glaze, to set glass; to graze, to eat grass.
   4. Signifying to use the thing denoted by the noun in some obvious manner; as, to butter, to fire, to fodder, to house, to ship, from the nouns, butter, fire, fodder, house, ship.
   5. Signifying to use the instrument denoted by the noun; as, to hammer, to mouth, to plow, from the nouns, hammer, mouth, plow.
   Note 1. In this derivation the final consonant of the stem is sometimes softened, or the accent is transferrred to the final syllable. Thus (1.) f is changed into v; as, to calve from calf;to halve from half; (2.) s is changed into z; as, to glaze from glass;to graze from grass;to house from house;to prize from prise; (3.) th is changed into dh; as, to breathe from breath;to mouth from mouth; and (4.) the accent is transferred to the final syllable; as, to aug-ment´ from aug´ment;to col-league´ from col´league;to con-fine´ from con´fine;to con-sort´ from con´sort;to fer-ment´ from fer´ment; to tor-ment´ from tor´ment.
   Note 2. The same derivative may be taken in two or more of the acceptations given above; as, to graze, to eat grass, see No. (3.) and to supply with grass, see No. (4.)
   Derivative verbs are formed also from adjectives, and have a transitive signification; as, to blue, to make blue; to dull, to make dull; to even, to make even; to warm, to make warm; from adverbs; as, to out, to cast out; and from interjections; as, to huzza or hurrah, to cry huzza or hurrah.
   When the same English word belongs to different parts of speech, and of course forms as many distinct articles in the dictionary, these articles should be arranged genealogically, that is, according to the order of their development. For example, the five or six different uses of the term right may be adjusted thus.
   RIGHT, adj. (from root of Eng. reach, = Lat. √ reg, Gr. √ ’ορεγ; with participial suffix t, comp. Lat. rectus, which is formed in an analogous manner;) properly strained, stretched, straight, whence many secondary or derived significations.
   RIGHT, subst. (the neuter adjective, used substantively,) what is right or just, rightness, justice.
   RIGHT, adv. (with loss of adverbial termination, comp. Anglo-Sax. rihte, adv. from riht, adj.) as if rightly, with rightness.
   RIGHT, verb trans. (from adjective right,) to make right, as, for example, an injured person.
   RIGHT, verb intrans. (from adjective right,) to become right, as a ship rising with her masts erect.
   RIGHT, interj. (from adjective right,) as if, by an ellipsis, for it is right.

(July 9, 2005)