Epic dictionary re-defines Ancient Greek including the words which made the Victorians blush

For 23 years a team from Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics has scoured Ancient Greek literature for meanings to complete the Cambridge Greek Lexicon, a monumental piece of scholarship and the most innovative dictionary of its kind in almost 200 years.

Recently published by Cambridge University Press, the Lexicon provides fresh definitions and translations gleaned by re-reading most of Ancient Greek literature from its foundations in Homer, right through to the early second century AD.

Introducing up-to-date English, the new dictionary clarifies meanings that had become obscured by antiquated verbiage in Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon which was first published in 1889.

Editor-in-Chief, Professor James Diggle of Queens’ College said: “We don’t call βλαύτη ‘a kind of slipper worn by fops’ as in the Intermediate Lexicon. In the Cambridge Lexicon, this becomes ‘a kind of simple footwear, slipper’.”

The team has also rescued words from Victorian attempts at modesty. “We spare no blushes,” said Diggle. “We do not translate the verb χέζω as ‘ease oneself, do one’s need’. We translate it as ‘to shit’. Nor do we explain ‘βινέω as ‘inire, coire, of illicit intercourse’, but simply translate it by the f-word.”

The two volumes are set to become instantly indispensable for Classics students as well as an important reference work for scholars.

The team used online databases – the Perseus Digital Library and later the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae – to make this huge corpus more easily accessible and searchable.

The researchers pored over every word, working steadily through the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet to build up a clear, modern and accessible guide to the meanings of Ancient Greek words and their development through different contexts and authors. The Lexicon features around 37,000 Greek words drawn from the writings of around 90 different authors and set out across more than 1,500 pages.

The project, which began in 1997, was the brainchild of the renowned Classical philologist and lexicographer John Chadwick (1920–98). The initial plan was to revise the Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. An abridged version of a lexicon published in 1843, it has never been revised, but until now has remained the lexicon most commonly used by students in English schools and universities. It was hoped that the project might be completed by a single editor within five years.

Diggle was then chair of the project’s advisory committee. He said: “Soon after work began it became clear that it was not possible to revise the Intermediate Lexicon; it was too antiquated in concept, design and content. It was better to start afresh by compiling a new lexicon.

“We didn’t realise at the time the magnitude of the task, and it was only because of advances in technology that we were able to take it on. We then had to appoint additional editorial staff and raise a huge amount of financial support. It took us over 20 years because we decided that if we were going to do it we must do it thoroughly.

“At the outset of the project I undertook to read everything which the editors wrote. I soon realised that if we were ever to finish I had better start to write entries myself, and for the last 15 years or more I was fully occupied with it and did little else – it took over my life.”

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon takes a fundamentally different approach to its Victorian predecessor. While entries in the Liddell and Scott lexicon usually start with a word’s earliest appearance in the literature, the Cambridge team realised this might not give its original, or root, meaning. Instead, they begin their entries with that root meaning and then in numbered sections trace the word’s development in different contexts.

Opening summaries help ease the reader into the longer entries, setting out the order of what is to follow, while different fonts signpost the way, helping the reader to distinguish between definitions, translations, and other material, such as grammatical constructions.

The team tackled countless other interesting and challenging words, including πόλις, which will be familiar to many in its English form ‘polis’. Diggle said: “Our article shows the variety of senses which the word can have: in its earliest usage ‘citadel, acropolis’, then (more generally) ‘city, town’, also ‘territory, land’, and (more specifically, in the classical period) ‘city as a political entity, city-state’, also (with reference to the occupants of a city) ‘community, citizen body’.”

“’Verbs can be the most difficult items to deal with, especially if they are common verbs, with many different but interrelated uses. ἔχω, (ékhō) is one of the commonest Greek verbs, whose basic senses are ‘have’ and ‘hold’. Our entry for this verb runs to 55 sections. If a verb has as many applications as this, you need to provide the reader with signposts, to show how you have organised the material, to show that you have organised the numbered sections in groups, and to show that these groups follow logically one from the other.”

Professor Robin Osborne, Chair of the Faculty of Classics, said: “The Faculty takes enormous pride in this dictionary and in the way Cambridge University Press have aided us and produced it. It’s a beautiful piece of book making.”

“We invested in the Lexicon to make a contribution to the teaching of Greek over the next century. This puts into the hands of students a resource that will enable them access to Ancient Greek more securely and easily.

“It is hugely important that we continue to engage with the literature of Ancient Greece, not as texts frozen in a past world, but which engage with the world in which we live. There’s been continual engagement with them since antiquity, so we are also engaging with that history, which is the history of European thought.”

The project’s attention to detail also extended to the Press and the typesetters, who took immense care to ensure that consulting the Lexicon would be an easy and pleasurable experience, right down to a specially-created text design. Diggle and his fellow editors inputted their entries for the Lexicon in xml, using a complex system of more than 100 digital tags to ensure each element was automatically rendered in the correct format.

This also allowed for a constant feedback loop between the editors, the Press and the typesetters, with proofs reviewed and corrected, and the style and content honed as work progressed.

Michael Sharp, the Lexicon’s Publisher, said: “The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is one of the most important Classics books we have ever published. It represents a milestone in the history of Classics, the University and the Press. I am elated, relieved and immensely proud of the part the Press has played in supporting this project.”

Professor Diggle said: “The moment of greatest relief and joy was when I was able to sign off the very, very final proofs and say to the Press ‘It’s finished. You can print it’. You can’t imagine what it was like, to realise that we had finally got there; I literally wept with joy.”