Older isn’t better.
The comparison isn’t between Johnson and Stamper, but between Johnson’s dictionary and those of Merriam-Webster today. There is no doubt that as a reference, Merriam-Webster’s current products are superior. They are based on a much more thorough review of the corpus with digital tools, the likes of which were simply inconceivable in Johnson’s day. Plus scholarship and methods have advanced and been honed in the intervening years.
I wasn’t referring specifically to Johnson’s dictionary, or to any older dictionary in particular. My contention was directed more at the statement in your previous post: “modern lexicographers simply know more and are better at their job than those in days past.”
They might know more because much more information has been attained in lexicography since Johnson’s dictionary of more than two hundred and fifty years. Furthermore, with the assistance of technology, as you said, “…they have more information and better tools to analyze the corpus of English.” And referring to modern lexicographers, “…comparing that image favorably with the modern teams of lexicographers using computerized tools and digital databases …” I wouldn’t think this qualifies as being better, but it certainly qualifies as being more advanced and perhaps offers a superior product. Nevertheless, I don’t agree that modern lexicographers (intrinsically) know more or are better at their profession.
In 1900 Sir James Murray claimed: “lexicography has for the present reached its supreme development.”
His statement, albeit perhaps arrogant, seems fairly accurate even today.
Lexicographer Jonathon Green, referring to Murray’s claim, said in his book “Chasing the Sun”
“…Murray must be given at least the benefit of the doubt. The substance of academic English-Language dictionary making has indeed remained very much within the shadow of Murray’s achievement. Looking at the two major ongoing projects in American lexicography, the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, one can see Murray’s legacy on every page. Such works have refined the original system, but it underpins every entry. The historical method, worked out in the Scriptorium and brought to fruition over forty years of publication, has yet to be effectively challenged. Nor need it be: the clarity, the intelligence, the sheer user-friendliness—at least to the academic or scholarly user—of Murray’s method is a worthy model. Only in one area can a major change be seen: in the arrival of the computer into the world of word gathering. The increasing availability of the corpus, a vast assemblage of material among which the lexicographer can browse at will, is making for far wider word lists and offering a far easier access to all the nuances and gradations of usage that must be set out. The corpus itself is less of a novelty. Once the lexicographers began including illustrative citations, it was necessary first to establish a plan of reading. Johnson for all his biases did just that; the Oxford lexicographers had such a list, established by Herbert Coleridge at the very outset of the Philological Society’s deliberations. Where the computer scores is in the potential all-inclusiveness of the corpora it holds. The omnium scibile of the Scholastics may have returned via the multigigabyte hard disk.”
Also, the idea of Johnson, much less Murray, slaving away alone by candlelight is hyperbole.
Johnson, who undoubtedly was one of the great minds of history, can lay a fairer claim to being the single author of his dictionary, but even he had amanuenses working for him. (Plus the original reference was to Noah Webster, not Murray or Johnson. I don’t know the degree to which Webster had help from assistants.)”
It seemed Webster had a single proofreader, recruited toward the end of his project. Apparently these assistants were secondary figures. He did not allow such helpers to influence his end product. Johnson on the other hand took on the more creative and arduous task of preparing the definitions and etymologies. He also selected the quotations that would provide the citations of usage.
I think this is a matter of opinion
No, it’s really not. Lexicography has advanced pari passu with linguistics, and modern dictionaries are infinitely better than their predecessors at doing their actual job, which is not writing enjoyable bits of prose
After rereading a book I read a few years ago I came upon another bit of information that somewhat counters LH’s opinion.
According to lexicographer Jonathon Green the dictionaries of the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, the era that predates the necessary turning over of conventional lexicography from the individual to the team, “…many dictionaries… were compiled by people with strong personalities, who produced highly idiosyncratic dictionaries…the idealists, the missionaries, those who used their dictionaries to scold, to preach, to mock, to fight not only ignorance but fatuity…” The paradox is that their dictionaries are those that are best remembered. Lexicographer Stuart Berg Flexner remarked, “Old dictionaries were named after their writers, whereas modern dictionaries are named after their publishers.” And Béjoint suggests, that many people, “regret the old days, when dictionaries were much worse, and also much better.”
I apologize for the prolixity of my post.