Jamieson’s dictionary of Scots

Jamieson’s dictionary of Scots: The story of the first historical dictionary of the Scots language. By Susan Rennie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 282. ISBN 9780199639403. $135 (Hb).
Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Bloomington, IN

This book is a history of the first comprehensive historical dictionary of the Scots language by John Jamieson in 1808. Jamieson’s dictionary was a remarkable work and for several generations afterward was the standard dictionary of both Older and Modern Scots. Its influence can be seen even today in current multivolume dictionaries of Scots that are in progress. Susan Rennie’s book opens with ‘A man of letters’, which looks at Jamieson’s educational, cultural, and social background. Ch. 2, ‘Models and rivals’, then examines the sources for the dictionary, as well as the competing dictionaries of Scots. Ch. 3, ‘The Dictionary takes shape’, then looks at how the dictionary took shape in Jamieson’s mind and work in gathering sources. Ch. 4 examines ‘The pulse of the public: Promotion and publication’. As was common in his time, Jamieson’s dictionary was published by subscription, which meant that he had to do a considerable amount of work promoting his dictionary and finding subscribers before he could get it published.

Ch. 5, ‘Inside the Dictionary’, looks closely at Jamieson’s methods and such features in the dictionary as the historical principles within which he worked, how he handled headwords, how he chose his authorities, and how he dealt with dialect and spoken Scots. Though Jamieson worked to have a broad representation of Scots vocabulary in his dictionary, he was typical of his day in not including words he thought to be vulgar. His tendency to focus on what he thought to be the best of Scots literature also meant that he missed some words in current use in his time. Ch. 6, ‘Revision and collaboration: The Abridgement and Supplement’, looks at the process through which Jamieson revised the dictionary, and also his abridgements, which were some of the most commonly used Scots dictionaries—or dictionaries deriving from his abridgements—until recently. The final chapter, ‘After Jamieson’, looks at how later editors revised Jamieson’s dictionary and also its influence on later Scots lexicography.

Though Jamieson’s dictionary is not well-known outside of Scottish Studies, it was an important nineteenth-century historical dictionary; it was, in fact, the first of the great historical dictionaries of the time. Jamieson’s work deserves to be more widely known to historical linguists, lexicographers, and even the general public. R’s book is an excellent guide to how this dictionary was created, from Jamieson’s first, much more limited concept to the final four-volume, comprehensive record of medieval and modern Scots that the dictionary became.