When I went up to Cambridge in late September 1974 to read Classics, I walked across the road from my college to Heffers and paid a goodly portion of my Exhibition award for a copy of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. It was an enormous tome, first published in 1843, although my copy was a ninth edition from 1940. I still have it. I’m not sure that it improved my knowledge of the language, but it did cut out unnecessary journeys to the Faculty library to tease out the meaning of a particularly obscure word.
Ancient Greek may be a dead language, but the corpus of its literature is expanding, thanks in part to more and more archaeological finds and developments in techniques in preserving and separating papyrus. Even the hapax legomena, those irritating one-offs that turned up in unseen translation papers with despairing regularity, are no longer so hapax as they once seemed. The language was also wrestled from the control of pontificating philosophers and elegiac tragedians and had a more demotic feel to it than when I studied it.
It was the late John Chadwick’s bright idea to update Liddell and Scott’s work, although on further reflection it was decided to start from scratch, turning an enterprise originally scheduled to last five years into a marathon of over twenty years. It fell to James Diggle and his team of editors to bring the project to fruition and the finished lexicon, The Cambridge Greek Lexicon, runs to some 1,500 pages with over 37,000 entries.
In an era when the natural instinct is to look something up on the internet, it seems a little perverse to produce a tome of a book that looks, well, a tad old school. Perversity and perseverance, though, are hallmarks of the Classicist and there is something strangely enticing about holding the printed page and to be able to wander from one item to another as the fancy takes you.
I shall buy a copy, not that I intend to read a Greek text again but as a gesture of support for what is surely one of the most academic of academic achievements. At a time when the liberal arts are under attack, I wonder whether in 150 years’ time there will be a need for another major update. I sincerely hope so.
Perhaps they will look askance at the editors’ rather forthright definitions of the sexually explicit words that made the plays of Aristophanes such a delight for an adolescent schoolboy to study. A bold move and one very much reflective of today’s attitudes as Liddell and Scott’s fudges and mudges were of theirs. As Cicero might have said, o tempora, o mores.