More from Books

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is an eye-opener for classical scholars

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon edited by J. Diggle, B.L. Fraser, P. James, O.B. Simkin, A.A. Thomson and SJ. Westripp

CUP, two volumes, pp.1529, 64.99

The great Latinist D.R. Shackleton Bailey was once said to have been pinned into a corner at a party and ordered to reveal what he actually did. ‘I just look things up all day,’ came the tetchy reply.

That will ring a loud bell with those who learned ancient Greek or Latin at school, especially when it came to looking up the meaning of a word in LSJ, Oxford’s big Greek-English dictionary, or rather lexicon (Greek lexikos, ‘of or for words’). It was named after the initials of its two original editors (Henry) Liddell and (Robert) Scott, and a later revising editor (Henry Stuart) Jones, and was so full of Greek that it took about a day to find the meaning you were actually looking for.

Leaning heavily on Franz Passow’s Greek-German dictionary, LSJ was published in 1843 at a price equivalent to £235. Following a tradition going back to Henri Estienne’s massive, ground-breaking Greek Thesaurus of 1572, its actual purpose was to give a historico-linguistic account of the Greek language. Hence its vast size and scope (some called it ‘Great Scott’). The latest (ninth) edition (1940) consists of more than 2,000 A4 pages of small-type, close-set Greek and English, weighs 10lbs and features more than 116,000 entries gleaned from countless literary and other sources. A supplement adds 320 pages of corrections and additions, revealing that the Greekshad a word for ‘to be changed into a cow’. Ino, Ino. It also includes the very earliest Greek from the economic records of Linear B, taking the reader back to 1450 BC.

Picture now the beginner turning to LSJ for the first time, each entry forested with illustrative quotations in Greek, each one fully referenced but very few translated, and the English meanings peeping shyly out of the impenetrable Greek thickets in no discernibly logical sequence. What on earth was the neophyte to make of this historico-linguistic monster? To their credit, Liddell and Scott realised the problem. So at the same time they published a heavily abridged and simplified Little Liddell, and in 1882 a Middle Liddell, covering rather more authors.

Enter John Chadwick, as in the Ventris and Chadwick who deciphered Linear B. For a long time he had felt dissatisfied with LSJ, and in 1997 he published proposals for a lexicon on quite different principles, on which he suggested basing a revised Middle Liddell. When it emerged that it was unrevisable, and that only a wholly new lexicon of Middle Liddell scope and purpose would do, Oxford abandoned the project and Cambridge pounced. Now we have the result.

While inevitably drawing on the resources and evidence of LSJ, CGL is nevertheless revolutionary. The compilers, led by one of the world’s outstanding Greek scholars, Professor James Diggle, have followed Chadwick’s lead in abandoning the traditional historico-linguistic approach in favour of categorisation by meaning alone. Revisiting each chosen word (c. 37,000 in all) diachronically, they identify its ‘root’ meaning in English, make that the first entry and then crisply and clearly categorise related meanings in a logically comprehensible sequence, with all illustrative quotations translated into English, not left in Greek. On almost every page, the only Greek (bar irregular forms, etc) is the dictionary entry. Authors from Homer to Plutarch (c. AD 120) are covered, as are the Gospels and Acts.

All dictionaries are translations, and word-for-word translations are a tricky business. As Dr Christopher Stray recently pointed out, LSJ got into trouble from those denouncing its handling of biblical Greek (one critic called it the ‘whorish mother of all harlot lexicons’, claiming it corrupted Cecil Rhodes’s faith). Others disapproved of its use of Anglo-Saxon English; but that still did not stop LSJ masking obscenities with sens(u) obsc(eno) (91 times) or leaving them in Gibbon’s ‘obscurity of a learned language’.

CGL certainly escapes criticism on these fronts. For example, while LSJ offers ‘ease oneself’ forkhezô, the Latin coire, inire for bîneô, and ‘wench’ (what?) for laikazô, CGL offers respectively ‘shit’, ‘fuck’ and ‘(of a man) perform fellatio, suck cocks’. But Greek is rich in words of lamentation, and even CGL cannot avoid the ‘woe is/ah me’ syndrome from time to time.

Naturally, its intense focus on meaning and absence of fully referenced sources may well beetle scholarly eyebrows. But there is hope that further financial backing can be found to develop a sophisticated online version to update and expand where necessary.

This pioneering lexicon is a triumphant intellectual and educational achievement, its design and content making it a real pleasure to use. Its authority, clarity and precision will be a boon and blessing for students, and an eye-opener for classical scholars and lexicographers too. L, S and J will surely be looking favourably on this CGL revolution from their everlasting places of honour in the asphodel fields.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments