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Cambridge University Creates Monumental New Ancient Greek Dictionary

Ancient Greek dictionary
Ancient Greek text on a plaque on the Areopagus in Athens. Credit: Ioannis Kontomitros/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

A new Ancient Greek dictionary has been created by a team of experts from Cambridge University, a gigantic labor of love that was more than twenty years in the making.

Its creators say that the monumental work takes a fresh look at Ancient Greek words for the first time in nearly two centuries, involving editors re-reading most of Ancient Greek literature in the hunt for meanings and nuances.

The miracles of modern technology helped the team to provide a fresh look at ancient words in this landmark moment for scholarly publishing.

Profesor Diggle
Professor James Diggle, the Editor-in-Chief of Cambridge University’s new Ancient Greek dictionary. “The Cambridge Greek Lexicon” is the most innovative new dictionary of Ancient Greek in almost 200 years. Credit: Sir Cam

The Cambridge team says that this monumental piece of scholarship and lexicography, titled “The Cambridge Greek Lexicon,” is set to become instantly indispensable for Classics students as well as an important reference work for scholars.

The tome is the result of 23 years of work by a team from the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, led by Editor-in-Chief, Professor James Diggle of Queens’ College.

The dictionary provides fresh definitions and translations that are rendered into contemporary English — gleaned from the Herculean task of re-reading most of Ancient Greek literature from its foundations in Homer right through to the early second century AD.

Huge databases enabled much faster word searches for Ancient Greek dictionary

Aided by online databases that made this huge corpus more easily accessible and searchable, the team states in an announcement that they “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 in different contexts and authors.”

The project, which began in 1997, was the brainchild of the renowned scholar John Chadwick. The initial plan was to revise the Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, which was first published in 1889. An abridged version of a lexicon published in 1843, this seminal work has never been revised since then.

Up until now, the Liddell and Scott tome has remained the lexicon most commonly used by students in English schools and universities for understanding Ancient Greek.

Initially, the team had high hopes that the daunting project might be completed by a single editor within the span of five years.

Professor James Diggle was then chair of the project’s advisory committee. He explains, however, that “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 realize 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.

“With the help of two online databases, the Perseus Digital Library and later the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, we undertook the ambitious task of reading again most of Greek literature. We then had to appoint additional editorial staff and raise a huge amount of financial support,” he notes.

Cambridge press typesetters vital part of monumental task

“It took us over 20 years because we decided that if we were going to do it we must do it thoroughly,” Diggle adds.

That exacting attention to detail also extended to Cambridge University Press, the publishing arm of the University, and to its typesetters as well, 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,” the University states in the announcement.

Professor Diggle and his fellow editors input 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 Cambridge Press and the typesetters.

The finished, two-volume Lexicon features approximately 37,000 Greek words drawn from the writings of 90 different authors and explicated over its 1,500 pages.

Professor Diggle stated “At the outset of the project I undertook to read everything which the editors wrote. I soon realized 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.

“While I was delighted to see the final printed volumes, 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.”

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon takes a fundamentally different approach than its Victorian predecessor had adopted. While entries in the Liddell and Scott lexicon usually start with a word’s earliest appearance in literature, the Cambridge team realized this might not give its original, or root, meaning.

Instead, they began their entries with that root meaning and then in numbered sections traced 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 use of modern day language also helps to make clear meanings obscured by antiquated verbiage and by Victorian attempts at modesty when defining lewder words and phrases.

“We spare no blushes,” explained Professor Diggle.

Professor Diggle gave some examples of interesting or challenging words that he and his team had to tackle when writing theLexicon and some examples of where the use of contemporary English has helped to make things clearer for a modern readership.

He said “Take a word like πόλις, which will be familiar to many in its English form, ‘polis.’ Our article shows the variety of senses which the word can have: in its earliest usage of ‘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) a ‘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.”

Diggle then added “We use contemporary English. 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’.”

Professor Robin Osborne, Chair of the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, 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.”

“Elated, relieved and immensely proud”

He noted “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.”

Michael Sharp, the Lexicon’s Publisher at the Press, declared “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, and in the history of the University of Cambridge and of Cambridge University Press. I am elated, relieved and immensely proud of the part the Press has played in supporting this project.

“It’s a colossal achievement and one that will last, I would like to say for all time, whatever that means, but I think that even if Cambridge University Press were to one day disappear this lexicon would still be in use.”

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