A friend pointed me to James Somer’s article praising the older editions of the Webster’s dictionary. The main points that he raises include the facts that:
- The original Webster carefully distinguishes between nuances of near-synonyms:
Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.
- Compared with modern dictionaries, its language is more pleasant, charming, and also precise and evocative in its imagery (again: “to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew”!)
I sent him a message about a modern dictionary that I like a lot, The American Heritage: it’s non-prescriptive, linguistically informed, employs literary quotations liberally, and also takes care to distinguish shades of meaning (Steven Pinker has a very interesting introduction to its philosophy). But I had to admit that overall the newer AHD is still a whole lot less charming than the old Webster—which is, tragically, the general tendency in all things academic.
The discussion got me thinking about what would be the Japanese equivalent. The truth is, I’ve only started using Japanese monolingual dictionaries recently, and I don’t have enough familiarity with the major ones to compare their flavours. But even I have heard tales of the notorious Shin Meikai Kokugo Jiten, aka Mr Shinkai (Shinkai-san). Dating from 1943, this Sanseidō dictionary is the work of several editors, but it has a peculiar air of personal tastes, attributed primarily to Yamada Tadao:
- Kamo [duck]:
Aquatic bird about the size of a chicken. The neck is long and the legs short. In winter it comes from the north, and in spring it returns. Has numerous variations. The meat is delicious.
Compared to the Webster’s, Meikai doesn’t seem particularly colorful or idiosyncratic. However, native speakers find plenty of dry wit in it—a kind of humor that, sadly, falls flat in translation. The thing is, the Japanese don’t usually make categorical, universal statements about subjective evaluations such as deliciousness; famously, one doesn’t even make assertions about internal states of others, such as “she’s happy” (only “she seems happy”, ureshisou). And one certainly does not assert things to be tasty in a dictionary entry! That blunt Niku wa umai feels really out of the blue, especially devoid as it is of the usual grammatical cushions for politeness and indirection (“we humbly think that X could perhaps be regarded as…” (actual example)). It feels as if you were reading a serious, scholarly encyclopædia’s entry on Cleopatra and suddenly the author says “she was totally hot”.
The Japanese have long found the Shin Meikai amusing—there’s even a best-seller on the topic (and, naturally, a twitter bot posting entries periodically). People have noted its intuitive imagery (“chicken-sized”, rather than e.g. Daijirin’s “medium-small bird”) and its empathetic wording, like when it describes octopuses as “running away” (nigeru) when they meet “enemies” (teki). The entries are brief but somehow vivid and intimate enough to make the creatures come alive before our eyes, setting them apart from similar ones; they might draw attention with trivia, e.g. (of octopuses) “Westerners don’t often eat them”. I find Shinkai-san’s style particularly helpful regarding Japanese fish, always a confusing topic for language learners and sushi snobs alike:
- Tai [sea bream]:
- A bony fish that lives in deep seas. The body is flat and the color of cherry blossoms [i.e. pale pink]. There are several varieties, but the true tai (madai) tastes good and is eaten during aspicious events.
Yes, this dictionary is not very vegan-friendly.
The lexicographer’s personality doesn’t show up only in food—er, animal-related entries. The one for Ren’ai “romantic love, passion, longing” is well-known:
- To fall into an exalted mood, embracing a special affection towards someone of the opposite gender; to want to be alone with them; to want to share a feeling of oneness with them; to entertain also the desire of becoming one carnally, whenever possible, and since it usually isn’t, to succumb to melancholic feelings; and when, rarely, the desire can be fulfilled, to feel great joy, etc.
The definition is heteronormative (what’s more, the overall tone of the dictionary is said to be considerably mysoginistic); but that’s sadly par for the course for the age. At any rate, compare it with the Kōjien definition: “A state of reciprocal love and longing for someone of the opposite gender, or that feeling”. Shinkai-san’s a lot more specific and concrete, and therefore poetic.
From 1943 to 2005 the Meikai has had 8 editions. I wonder if, like the Webster’s, there’s a palpable difference in the style and fluidity of the various editions. I wonder too whether there are other comparable Japanese dictionaries…