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Notes on the Piano of the Imagination

As a lexicographer, cocktail conversation comes easy. For two years now I have regaled interlocutors with stories of a far-off dictionary where celebrations are held for the letter P. When I tell them it’s a Latin dictionary, they inevitably wonder: don’t we already know what all the Latin words mean? I usually respond by telling them that, yes, there are many Latin dictionaries out there, all of which offer definitions that enable one to read Latin. But then I pose a question in return: what does it mean to define a word? What sort of information should a dictionary provide?

These are the questions that I have spent the past two years trying to answer (or rather, answering in different ways at different times). Unlike many dictionaries, which are modeled on predecessors, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is an original work (in just about every sense of the phrase), and does what most dictionaries—whatever the language—do not. For each lemma (lexicography-speak for an entry), it provides instead an exacting and detailed commentary on how a word is used throughout the course of archaic, classical, and late antique Latin literature—what words it often co-occurs with (that is, its collocations or iuncturae); what tendency it has to be used with particular genres, social groups, and discourse topics; and how frequently it occurs.

While most of us think of meaning in terms of synonym-substitution (“x means y”), a more productive view is to see it as the conditions under which a word can be used. I learned this lesson early on with the word nedum, which means roughly 'let alone' (as in Jim can’t ride a bike, let alone a motorcycle). Here mere substitution was not an option: I had to explain instead to what end speakers used nedum, why Livy and Tertullian in particular liked to use the word, and that its 'meaning' lay in its ability to order two—or sometimes more—elements on a scale (as with bike and motorcycle above).

Seen from this angle, spelling out the meaning of a word—even when we know what it 'means'—is no simple task, because ultimately what one is doing is describing the place the word had in the minds of Latin speakers. The following remark from Wittgenstein served as one of the guiding lights of my work: “Das Aussprechen eines Wortes ist gleichsam ein Anschlagen einer Taste auf dem Vorstellungsklavier” (Philosophische Untersuchungen §6), which translates roughly as, “Uttering a word is like playing a note on the piano of the imagination.” Although the original concept and foundation of the Thesaurus lie profoundly in the nineteenth century (to an extent that typically provokes mockery), the work being done there today engages with the most central questions of language, to say nothing of the contributions that it makes to our understanding of Latin literature and culture (in the broadest senses).

I came to the Thesaurus in June 2010, having finished a dissertation and received my Ph.D. only weeks before. My arrival was the realization of five years of hope that I would have the opportunity to contribute to the project. I had two goals for my time there. The first was to understand the underlying principles of a TLL article better—so as to make better use of the dictionary myself, and to be able to guide my students in the same. The second was to use my experience charting the semantic history of words as the groundwork for a book on how words change meaning over time. The Thesaurus was the ideal environment for this project: since articles are (normally) organized chronologically, they do not limit themselves to commentary on how a word is used, but also track when innovative senses develop.

Aside from all that I learned about lexicography and meaning at the Thesaurus, the feature of life there that left the deepest impact on me was the scholarly collaboration. My experience with the word recognosco (more or less synonymous with its English counterpart ‘recognize’) offers a brief illustration. I began writing the word in April 2011, and finished a first draft in July, which my editor, Michael Hillen, then heavily revised and returned to me with a list of problems. I addressed the problems and sent back my own commentary on his edits. While I went on to new words, this back and forth continued until my last week at the Thesaurus in June 2012. My parting gift, sent just before my last day, was a six-page response to three pages of commentary

I had sent him weeks before. With the great majority of words, Michael and I saw eye-to-eye on how to frame the body of the article (in house, known as the Dispositio). With recognosco, however, nothing seemed satisfactory: we disagreed about the interpretation of a number of passages, as well as how to group everything into a coherent whole (I was often reminded not to be "allzu theoretisch," when it came to formulating the Dispositio). But it was in this Auseinandersetzung that I really saw a lexicographer’s—not to mention a philologist’s—mind at work, and in turn learned for myself the art of presentation.

I was the first to be awarded the TLL Fellowship for a second year, and will record here only a portion of the many benefits that this tenure has yielded. First, I had the opportunity to learn the inner workings of Thesaurus articles at a far more detailed level than would have been possible in the span of one year. Second, my work at the Thesaurus provided me with ample material for publication elsewhere: I am about to submit one article on the usage and history of nedum, and have the foundations for another three, not to mention a book. Third, since my work at the TLL exposed me to questions of semantic change (an area of research not well understood, and consequently one that few are equipped to teach), I was invited to offer a course on the subject at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. This in turn helped pave the way for my new job, as an Assistent at the University of Vienna, which I will start this fall.

In short, my two years at the Thesaurus were richer and more productive than I ever could have imagined. It was an honor to contribute to the project, and I am moreover delighted to be only a short train ride away.