May 23, 2016

World’s most comprehensive Latin dictionary is only 25 years from completion, not yet available for pre-order


Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

This one goes out to all the players of certamen, decliners of nouns, and convention-goers of the mid-state NCJL (that’s the National Junior Classical League, for the uninitiated) out there. Yep, all three of you reading this blog right now are going to be really stoked to hear that in less than twenty-five years researchers and editors at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities will complete the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the most exhaustive dictionary of classical Latin ever assembled. It will be a grand work of scholarship more than one hundred years in the making.

By consulting every available scrap of Latin written between the sixth century BC and the death of Saint Isidore of Seville in 636 AD — including graffiti, recipe books, and public records, as well as the language’s more familiar literary output — the project aims to preserve and organize every surviving use of the Latin vocabulary from the era of the language’s dominance. Begun in 1894, it will be a remarkable achievement, a scholarly effort sustained through two world wars and German reunification.

From the project website:

The work is based on an archive of about 10 million slips which takes account of all surviving texts. In the older texts there is a slip for each occurrence of each word; the later ones are generally covered by a selection of lexicographically relevant examples. Nowadays this material is supplemented, where appropriate, by the use of modern data-banks. The dictionary articles result from a critical inspection and interpretation of this material. They allow the user to follow the development of meaning and usage in each word.

As of 2010, work had been completed through the “P” volume (except for “N,” which has proved particularly devilish, and remains ongoing). The “R” volume is currently underway, and will house such delightful terms as res, Latin’s notoriously complicated word for “thing,” which survives today, among other places, in the phrase in medias res (“into the middle of things”) and in the first two letters of the word “republic” (from the phrase res publica, literally “the public thing”).

Byrd Pinkerton at NPR provides an account of the work done thus far, and includes this charming introduction to some of the individuals involved in the effort:

More than 100 years ago, scholars painstakingly paged through every Latin book and engraving they could find, sorting out repeats and relationships. Then, they copied out passages onto these slips — one slip for each word in each passage. The slips were then sorted into boxes — usually one box for each word. Or in the case of res, 16 boxes…

Every slip of paper on [researcher and editor Marijke] Ottink’s desk is a unique instance of the word “thing” in recorded ancient Latin, close to 20,000 references in all. It’s her job to go through each example, read through the original text it came from, figure out the precise inflection of its meaning in each case and then wrestle all of the definitions into a descriptive article — written in Latin.

This is especially challenging for a slippery word like “thing.”

“You don’t get a grip of the real thing,” Ottink explains, then catches herself. “Ha! Real thing!”

Her colleague, Nigel Holmes, a Thesaurus editor, wrote the article for nam, or “for.”

“I have sometimes joked that I still have nightmares from when I was in nam,” he admits. “But it was actually, it was easier than I thought.”

So the good news is in twenty-four years we’ll have a complete lexicon of the Latin language, an invaluable scholarly resource. The bad/better news is this will probably lead to more Latin puns. Should be worth the wait, nam saying?



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.