Norris J. Lacy

title.none: Hindley et al. eds, Old French- English Dictionary (Norris J. Lacy)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.003 02.03.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Norris J. Lacy, Pennsylvania State University, NJL2@PSU.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hindley, Alan, Frederick Langley and Brian Levy, eds. Old French- English Dictionary. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 620. ISBN: 0-512-34564-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.03

Hindley, Alan, Frederick Langley and Brian Levy, eds. Old French- English Dictionary. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 620. ISBN: 0-512-34564-2.

Reviewed by:

Norris J. Lacy
Pennsylvania State University

While reading Old French texts, many students and scholars whose primary field is not French surely spend a good deal of time looking up unfamiliar words that occur in the Modern French definitions offered by Godefroy [1] or others. That this perhaps should not be the case, at least for professional medievalists and advanced students, is beside the point: it happens. A single example, chosen quite at random: one of Godefroy's definitions for "flageoler" (in the one-volume version of his dictionary) is "dire des sornettes, des fariboles". It is easy to understand why students (and some others) must then use a French/English dictionary to decipher the definition. Moreover, lest those of us in French become smug, we must also acknowledge how many in our field, as well as in almost any field other than German, simply keep a safe distance from Tobler-Lommatzsch. [2] However much purists or traditionalists may lament the practical need for an Old French/English dictionary, that need clearly exists.

Dictionaries are like watches, said Samuel Johnson (who had reason to know what he was talking about): the worst is better than none, and the best is imperfect. Accordingly, the Old French-English Dictionary (henceforth OFED) is predictably less than perfect, but it must be said from the outset that the good heavily outweighs the bad. Anglophone readers, or rather translators, of Old French will therefore profit greatly from this dictionary, and although the compilers refer in particular to the problems facing undergraduates (ix), graduate students and scholars in a good many fields will surely welcome it as well.

The OFED grew out of a computerized lexicon compiled at the University of Hull, with words drawn from the glossaries to representative critical editions of texts up to ca. 1350, as well as from the major multi-volume dictionaries. The result is a dictionary of some 60,000 entries, most of them words that belong to the "general cultural context". (ix) (For purposes of comparison, I estimate that the single-volume Godefroy offers about 54,000 entries.) Although extensive in the number of entries, the new dictionary is very basic in terms of the information it offers: the word, its grammatical function, and most often a simple definition; e.g., "erbele sf grass". Where necessary, two or more definitions are given, and a reasonable number of idiomatic expressions are included. There are neither etymons nor illustrative examples; these omissions are most unfortunate but obviously unavoidable if the dictionary is to be reasonably comprehensive but still of manageable size.

The editors inform us that they have omitted much technical vocabulary, and they furthermore explain that they generally have not listed irregular verb forms. They most often list nouns under the oblique form but may list both nominative and oblique for some imparisyllabics. (ix-x) Unable to list every spelling of a word, they offer in their preface a brief list of common spelling variations, such as "g- see j-". In fact, the form "flageoler", mentioned above, is not itself in the OFED, but using the table of spelling variations, one can easily enough find "flajoler vi play the flute; chatter, prattle, joke".

A good many orthographic and other variants are however cross-indexed within the body of the dictionary. Therein lies the major difference between the OFED and Godefroy, which may be its main competition. [3] Godefroy lists a great many more uncommon words; the OFED offers "a wide range of variant forms referring back to the single headword entry". (x) An illustration of this range is offered by the word "nombril", listed even though that is the Modern French form; presumably it is here because it means not only 'navel' but, as "nombril de mer", also 'whirlpool'. In all, OFED includes at least eight forms meaning 'navel'. It is useful to find "lombril" with a reference to "nombril", since even some readers of modern French may not immediately recognize the former; but the utility of listing "nombris" (and perhaps even "nomblil") with a cross-reference to "nombril" is less apparent. The form "ombil", 'navel', is also (and wisely) included, and "omblil", "omblir", and "omble" are then listed with a "see ombil".

Compare that listing of variants with Godefroy's: of the forms given above, Godefroy has only "omble"; however, he does also offer the dimunitive "nombrillet", as well as "nombrilliere" 'umbilical cord', both missing from the OFED. We certainly should not fault the compilers for their thoroughness in listing variant forms, but it comes at a price, which is the omission of a good many semi-technical or unusual words. Someone new to the study of Old French texts will probably find that price reasonable; more advanced users would doubtless have preferred fewer variants and more distinct entries..

In some instances, the OFED method of cross-indexing does not strike me as the most logical approach. The dictionary includes "hiersoir", recognizable by anyone who has any Modern French at all; curiously, however, users who locate it will be sent to the less familiar form "ersoir", where they will find the definition: 'last night; yesterday evening'. Similarly, "heroique" refers us to "eroique". One wonders why the less familiar forms ("ersoir", "herseir", "eroique") do not consistently send us to the more familiar ones, as with "nombril"--unless the editors do not expect users to have any knowledge of Modern French.

I hope I may be excused a bit of lexicographical heresy: if the intent was to make this dictionary as efficient and "user- friendly" as possible by including large numbers of variant forms, and since most definitions consist of only a word or two, I wonder if it would not have been more helpful to reduce cross-indexing and, wherever possible, define each form as it appears. That, of course, would not reinforce the user's awareness of spelling variations, nor would it be feasible for words (e.g., the preposition "por") that require extensive definition and explanation. However, it would work in the majority of cases, making it unnecessary for a user to thumb through the volume to find a variant form. After all, it requires no less space to write "oistre sf see uistre", as the dictionary does, than it would to write "oistre sf oyster".

But these are all quibbles. The best test of a dictionary is extended practical use, and consequently, as I was teaching some Old French texts and working on others, I paused frequently to check the OFED, both for a great many common words and for some that were unusual or technical. For the most part, the dictionary passed my tests without difficulty. Although a systematic comparison of Godefroy and OFED had previously identified large numbers of words defined by the former but absent from the latter--an examination of three or four pages chosen at random in Godefroy enabled me to locate at least fifteen examples--I was pleased to find that for "everyday use", most of what could be considered part of the "general cultural context" was indeed included. Missing, as the editors admit, were many technical terms, though some of those are only marginally technical. Absent also are a number of words that occur only rarely in Old French texts. For example, "achon" 'azure' is not included (unless I have failed to locate a variant spelling), but it seems to occur in only two Old French texts: Le Bel Inconnu and Joufroi de Poitiers. Occasionally lacking as well are particular definitions of a word. For example, the OFED defines "bergerete" as shepherdess but omits, perhaps as technical, its meaning as a kind of song, a dance, or an aromatic wine. Under the listing for "pasture" the editors give two definitions-- 'fodder; fig. food for thought' and '(vet) horse's pastern'-- but omit a third, 'tether' or 'shackles'.

This dictionary will not replace the single-volume Godefroy or, of course, the multi-volume dictionaries, but it was not meant to accomplish that. (In fact, for serious use, students will no doubt wish to have both this volume and Godefroy--or conceivably Greimas--at hand.) The OFED is an exceedingly useful tool for those whose Modern French (or German) is limited. No dictionary, and especially no single-volume two- language dictionary, will be flawless, and we can locate omissions and limitations in this one. Nonetheless, it must be concluded that, all in all, its compilers have accomplished exceedingly well the task they set for themselves. Generations of students will undoubtedly be grateful to them. Some of mine already are.


[1] Frederic Godefroy, Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue francaise, 10 vols. (Paris: F. Viewig, 1880-1902). There is also a one-volume edition, Lexique de l'ancien francais (Paris: Champion, 1964).

[2] Adolf Tobler and Erhard Lommatzsch, Altfranzosisches Worterbuch (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung; Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1925- ). [Currently complete through the letter V]

[3] It might be argued that, for reasons of accessibility, OFED will compete instead with A.J. Greimas, Dictionnaire de l'ancien francais jusqu'au milieu du XIVe siecle (Paris: Larousse, 1968). The editors of OFED point out correctly that Greimas's practice of grouping variant forms under a single entry presents difficulties for the anglophone reader of Old French. For serious students of Old French, though, Greimas offers some obvious advantages: entries include etymology, indication of first use, and a good number of illustrative quotations.