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Hardly Harmless Drudgery: Landmarks in English Lexicography

May 2 through July 27, 2024

Monday-Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm

Curated by Bryan A. Garner & Jack Lynch
On view in the Grolier Club’s ground floor gallery

NEW YORK, NY.- Samuel Johnson, creator of the first great English dictionary, impishly mocked his own trade when he defined lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” Hardly Harmless Drudgery: Landmarks in English Lexicography features more than 100 objects, from early printed books to CD-ROMs, that tell stories of the people who struggled to corral and define the English vocabulary in all its dizzyingly diverse manifestations. NOW on view in the Grolier Club’s ground floor gallery from May 2 through July 27, 2024,

Co-curated by Grolier Club members Bryan A. Garner (Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University) and Jack Lynch (Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark)—both lexicographers and historians of dictionary-making—Hardly Harmless Drudgery includes manuscripts, documentary materials, engravings, photographs, busts, tokens, and stamps. An accompanying book, published by Godine, details how the dictionary evolved from manuscript to print to digital editions.

“Dictionaries are repositories of erudition, monuments to linguistic authority, and cultural battlefields.  They are works of almost superhuman endurance,” write Garner and Lynch. “As commodities in a fiercely competitive market, they’ve kept publishers afloat for generations. They’ve also sometimes sunk publishers. Many are beautiful objects, products of genuine innovation in typography and book design. This exhibition tells the story of English dictionaries. Plus the geniuses, sciolists, plagiarists, and obsessives who’ve created them, from the late Middle Ages to the present—and beyond.”

Exhibition Highlights

This exhibit is drawn mostly from Karolyne and Bryan A. Garner’s collection of dictionaries and lexicographic artifacts. Hardly Harmless Drudgery highlights important dictionaries and manuscripts from Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and the Oxford English Dictionary. It also includes  portraits, advertisements, lexicographic ephemera, and letters.

The exhibition also features letters to lexicographers from the dictionary aficionados Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, and E.B. White.

The exhibition culminates with lexicographic efforts that continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, including the first dictionary of Black English, Clarence Major’s Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (New York: International Pubs., 1970); the first LGBT dictionary, Bruce Rodgers’ The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972); and A Feminist Dictionary by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler, with Ann Russo (Boston: Pandora Press, 1985), which questioned the ideology behind ostensibly neutral and objective reference books, said to be “constructed almost entirely by men with male readers and users in mind.”

Looking ahead to the future, the exhibition offers a preview of draft entries to be included in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s forthcoming Dictionary of African American English (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, projected for 2025).

Also Available on Line: https://grolierclub.omeka.net/exhibits/show/lexicography

Thank you to society member Paul Albright for sharing this article from Art Daily.