Wednesday, 4 May 2011

James Boswell — Scots Dictionary Pioneer

Hot on the heels of the rare Burns manuscript whose existence was made public to coincide with the poet's birthday this year, Scotland on Sunday has revealed that James Boswell's draft of a prototype Scots dictionary has been identified in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The specimen had fallen into its hands along with the papers of the great lexicographer John Jamieson, whose Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), through various editions and updates, remained the standard work for well over 100 years until the advent of the Scottish National Dictionary (begun in 1931 but completed only in 1976).

Boswell is of course best known as the biographer of Samuel Johnson, many of whose researchers were also Scots, leading to the negotiation of such classic definitions as that for oats. Intriguingly, the article relates that Johnson encouraged Boswell to produce "a dictionary of words peculiar to Scotland", thus copper-fastening the auld leid's status as a dialect of English. A comprehensive dictionary of Lowland language today would exclude much of what is distinctive and colourful about Modern Scots, which is either recessive or dead. As so often in this context, after the initial elation of discovery, the overwhelming sentiment is of "whit micht hae been".

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