For those of us still grieving the defunct Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the release of the second edition of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, on March 17 this year, lent some comfort.
First published in 1967 to coincide with Canada’s centennial, the DCHP not only gives spellings and definitions but also tracks (and sometimes illustrates) the history of Canadian words and usages. The dictionary was released in 2013 as an open-access website under the direction of Stefan Dollinger, an English professor and linguist at the University of British Columbia.
Fast-forward to 2017 and DCHP-2, as the second edition is logically (if not mellifluously) called, was unveiled for the sesquicentennial (“a fine birthday gift to Canada,” said the Toronto Star). Media outlets from the Globe and Mail to CBC to the New Yorker hailed its arrival. This month’s Quill and Quire gave it an entire page.
I caught up with Dollinger in Victoria, where he’s on sabbatical. We discussed the dictionary, for which he’s an enthusiastic spokesperson and tweeter, and he showed me the Everest-like spike in site traffic following the New Yorker profile. When I asked what he was up to, digging into the DCHP archives at UVic, he shared some news: he’s writing a book about the dictionary.
Cool, I said. Like The Professor and the Madman?
Kind of. Aiming for a broad audience, Dollinger will explore the emergence of Canadian English, a lexicon barely recognized in the 1940s through 1960s, when the dictionary took shape. “But my research is first and foremost on the people, who have largely been banned from linguistic memory,” he says.
Dollinger plans to unveil the “Big Six” — the scholar-heroes who created DCHP-1. Some, like Matthew Harry Scargill, were not even Canadian. A lover of English whodunits, who fed his habit at Ivy’s Bookshop in Victoria, Scargill was a Yorkshire man with a PhD from the University of Leeds. Charles J. Lovell, who started the dictionary, was an American who never went beyond high school.
“These were remarkable people, from what the record and archives tell me,” Dollinger says. “They literally worked themselves to death to create a Canadian English.”
Apparently, yes. Lovell was only two years into the project when he was felled by a heart attack at age 53. Then there was Walter Spencer Avis, who took over after Lovell’s death. “I always thought Avis died suddenly in 1979 at age 60,” says Dollinger. “Then I discover that he had a heart attack in the early 1960s, so basically when editing DCHP-1. It was another one that killed him in 1979.”
As it turns out, lexicographers often die on the job. The Grimm brothers left the world before finishing their German dictionary. James Murray died while compiling the OED, and Frederic G. Cassidy was still reviewing entries for the Dictionary of American Regional English up until his death at 92.
Dollinger says he’s not worried. “My wife tells me I should not go play tennis all of a sudden. But I haven’t been smoking or drinking Scotch, as the DCHP-1 editors used to do,” he jokes.
Even so, Dollinger has no plans to continue as editor of DCHP-3 (readers take note: he will support any serious aspirant). Is one dictionary enough for a lexicographical lifetime? Or is there so much more to explore beyond words and meanings? Yes and yes. But, Dollinger says, the real answer is simple: he does not want to die a lexicographer, like so many of his predecessors.
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