‘Jamieson’s Dictionary of Scots: The Story of the First Historical Dictionary of the Scots Language’ by Susan Rennie

'Jamieson's Dictionary of Scots'The Reverend John Jamieson’s contribution to Scottish lexicography is central to the historiography of the study of Scots as a distinct variety of language. Furthermore, his methodologies have proven extremely influential for subsequent major Scottish and English dictionary projects, yet his life and accomplishments are not well-known in either academic or popular culture. Susan Rennie’s book attempts to redress Jamieson’s obscure status, recognising his national and international significance, and contextualising the man and his scholarly achievements. His two-volume Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language(1808), was, as Rennie underlines in her Preface, ‘the first complete dictionary of the Scots language, and the first work in either English or Scottish lexicography to take a thoroughly historical approach’ (xi). Jamieson published two further Supplement volumes in 1825. Collectively, the Dictionary and Supplement cover an extensive range of historical and contemporary vocabulary, supported with illustrations from literary sources and from Jamieson’s knowledge of the spoken language. Like many lesser-known pioneers of English lexicography, such as Robert Cawdrey, whose work, A Table Alphabetical of Hard Usual English Words (1604), is widely recognised as the ‘first’ English dictionary, Jamieson’s contribution to Scottish lexicography has been overshadowed by the dictionary makers who came after him. In the twenty-first century, there are outstanding resources like the online Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk), which brings together the 12-volume Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (1931-2002) and the 10-volume Scottish National Dictionary (1931-76) and its Supplements (1976, 2005). However, these works owe a great deal to Jamieson’s pioneering endeavours, and Rennie has done much here to awaken the wider scholarly community to the editorial legacies that he generously gifted to others.

Chapter 1 is entitled ‘”A man of Letters”‘ — borrowing a quotation from Sir Walter Scott’s description of his friend and contemporary. It usefully orients the reader by providing a concise biography, detailing Jamieson’s primary career as a Secession minister in Forfar and Edinburgh. Rennie draws particular attention to the range of Jamieson’s knowledge and scholarship. He published several works on theology and poetry and produced edited editions of medieval Scottish literary texts. Jamieson was also known to turn his hand to creative work, writing poetry in both Scots and English.

Chapter 2, ‘Models and rivals’, positions Jamieson’s dictionary in relation to earlier glossarial work and to the various eighteenth-century attempts at documenting Scots usage. Thomas Ruddiman’s glossary, which accompanied the 1710 edition of Gavin Douglas’s sixteenth-century Scots translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, is one of the most significant models available to Jamieson, and impressed him deeply. He also made (what surely must have been) satisfyingly ironic use of eighteenth century ‘proscriptive lists of Scotticisms […] Aimed at eradicating the Scots usages they described’ (35), bending them instead to his objective: preserving knowledge of the language. Notable contemporary projects in Scots lexicography include that attempted by James Boswell, which was never completed, and indeed remained ‘lost’, being misattributed to Jamieson until its true identity was uncovered recently by Rennie while working on Jamieson’s papers.1

Chapter 3, ‘The Dictionary takes shape’, documents Jamieson’s inspirational encounter with Professor Grímur Thorkelin, whose interest in the many lexical parallels between Scots and Icelandic encouraged Jamieson to think of Scots as a language with a reputable pedigree. Through close examination of Jamieson’s correspondence, Rennie explains many of the foundation ideas that were to shape the dictionary as a whole. While Jamieson’s views on word origins may seem naive by today’s standards, they were apparently instrumental in the inception of the dictionary. The very close links he perceived between Scots and the North Germanic languages, while flawed, appear to have given him confidence in the legitimacy of Scots as a language in its own right, setting it further apart from English.

Chapter 4, ‘”The Pulse of the Public”: promotion and publication’, considers Jamieson’s attitudes to his great work, as seen through his personal correspondence. At one stage he almost abandoned the entire plan, selling his manuscripts to the English lexicographer Jonathan Boucher, for incorporation into his dialect-inclusive dictionary of English. After considering a joint project, they parted ways after some acrimonious disputes, particularly with regard to the treatment of Scots, which Jamieson did not want to see treated as a dialect of English. Jamieson therefore resumed his great work. Once all of the material had been compiled, he had much to do, preparing the text for publication; revisions and corrections detained Jamieson for some fifteen months (103). Jamieson also took personal responsibility for the distribution of copies to his subscribers, which proved to be a very onerous and costly task. The challenges he faced are carefully outlined, giving readers an insight into the practical aspects of his nineteenth-century context.

The contents of the dictionary are discussed in detail in Chapter 5, ‘Inside the Dictionary’. Some components, such as the majority of the Preface, were written when Jamieson circulated his original Proposal, to attract subscribers, in 1802. Rennie comments on the slightly disjointed effect this creates, and illuminates some interesting minor points such as his veiled insult to his ‘rival’, Boucher. The front matter of the dictionary also includes Jamieson’s Dissertation on the Origins of the Scottish Language, in which he sets out his ‘theory of the non-Anglo-Saxon origin of Scots’ (117). At that time, there were many conflicting arguments about the origins of the Scots language, and Jamieson was keen to contribute to the debate. Rennie points out, however, that he had adopted ‘a more pragmatic approach towards etymology’ by the time he published the Supplement in 1825 (120).

Chapter 6, ‘Revision and collaboration: the Abridgement and Supplement‘, tells the story of Jamieson’s work for these two titles, published in 1818 and 1825 respectively. The period after publication of the original dictionary was marred by a number of personal difficulties including the deaths of two of his children and the bankruptcy of one of his sons. He persevered, however, working next on the production of a less costly, more accessible single volume text. The Abridgement was modestly priced and sold well. The Supplement was another momentous two-volume publication, for which Jamieson consulted new sources, including dialect glossaries, newspapers and periodicals. He also benefited from local contributors, and Rennie illuminates this dimension of his work through his correspondence.

Chapter 7, ‘After Jamieson’, includes discussion of the significance of Jamieson’s works to the Lallans writers of the early twentieth century. Many editions of the dictionary were produced after Jamieson’s death, and his work was not superseded until the two colossal dictionaries of Scots were produced over the course of the twentieth century. Jamieson’s work was not only important to the editors of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (1931-2002) and the Scottish National Dictionary (1931-76); it was used extensively as a source by Joseph Wright in his English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) and the original Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928). In this chapter, Rennie details many of Jamieson’s lasting legacies, and notes various points of detail which illuminate the relationships between these major historical dictionaries.

At the end of the book there are three useful appendices. Appendix A (pp. 238-238) provides ‘A chronology of events in Jamieson’s life’, detailing significant events and publications. Appendix B (pp. 240-242) documents the ‘Publication history of the Dictionary and Supplement‘, while Appendix C (pp. 243-254) details ‘Sir Walter Scott’s contributions to the Supplement’. The last of these is perhaps the most compelling. Jamieson notes for example:

[Scott annotation:] Virtue. In the Scottish sense signifies thrift or industry. […] Sir W. Scott has kindly furnished me with the following amusing illustration. “A young preacher, who chose to enlarge to a country congregation on the beauty of Virtue, was surprised to be informed of an old woman, who expressed herself highly pleased with his sermon, that her daughter was the most virtuous woman in the parish, for that week she had spun sax spyndles of yarn.” (248)

Additionally, the book is very well presented, with few errors. It is perhaps unfortunate that the reference in footnote 57 to the website at identifies this as ‘the Boswell’s Scottish Dictionary website’, whereas the title of the actual website seems (perhaps subsequently) to have been altered to ‘Boswell’s Dictionary of Scots‘.2 This is a minor quibble, of course, and the sort of inconsistency that is increasingly apparent, given the protean nature of online resources. A helpful glossary includes sensible cross references, such as ‘toponymy, Jamieson’s research on, see place names’ (281). The plates and photographs add realism, notably in the case of Sir Walter Scott’s personal copy of the 1808 Dictionary (112), while the crabbed, handwritten text of Jamieson’s draft Supplement (207) underlines the gargantuan nature of his task, and his extraordinary commitment to it.

Jamieson’s Dictionary of Scots is a thoughtful and very carefully researched book that provides a sympathetic treatment of its eponymous hero and his lexicographical work. Until now, it was quite a challenge for anyone to find out much about this man without undertaking considerable research of their own. Rennie has done much here to rehabilitate his memory, and her monograph will be of special interest to students and scholars of Scots, the lexicography of Scots and English, and of Scottish literature. It is also a fascinating social history, and Rennie’s account of the mundane trials Jamieson faced is a humbling reminder of the everyday trials he encountered during the production of his magnum opus.


References & Further Information

1 Susan Rennie, ‘Boswell’s Scottish Dictionary Rediscovered’, in Dictionaries, vol. 32 (2011), pp.94-110.
2 Accessed May 2nd, 2013.

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Maggie Scott

Maggie Scott is Lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Salford. She is the author of the Scots Word of the Season regular column in The Bottle Imp.

More articles by Maggie Scott

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