New Amherst College dictionary class: Definition of a meaningful course

  • Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, will co-teach a course on the making of dictionaries at Amherst College this spring.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/MERRIAM-WEBSTER

  • Ilan Stavans, an Amherst College professor, will co-teach a course on the making of dictionaries at Amherst College this spring. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 11/24/2019 9:18:01 PM

AMHERST — Dictionaries are more than just tomes sitting on a shelves: They’re cultural artifacts, reflections of historical eras and windows into the mindset of the modern world, according to lexicographers Peter Sokolowski and Ilan Stavans. 

Sokolowski, the editor at large of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and Stavans, a professor at Amherst College, will explore these ideas and more with students at Amherst College this spring as part of a course titled “The Making of Dictionaries.”

The goal of the course isn’t to train students to become lexicographers, Sokolowski said, but to foster “a much more nuanced and detailed understanding of where dictionaries came from and how they’re made.”

Rather than operating as a standard course, a group capped at six students will work on a collaborative project with their professors, which will likely take the form of a book about the history of dictionaries in various cultures. Students will receive a stipend and room and board for time spent outside of the semester working on the project, and they’ll be credited as co-authors of the book. 

Though the project will be capped at six students, others, including community members, may take the course in another form, such as auditing. 

“Language is the portal for us to understand debates that we are in the middle of,” Stavans said. As dictionaries are updated throughout the years, they reflect societal and cultural shifts.

The first English dictionary was published in 1604 — a time when most people were not literate, and the first dictionaries were primarily used by monks, scribes and priests, Sokolowski said. But with the arrival of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, dictionaries “expressed an entirely new set of values from the Renaissance dictionaries,” and Noah Webster, the forefather of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary, decided that “rather than being literary, they were more political,” Sokolowski said.

The digital age has provided a revealing window into the public’s mind, Sokolowski said, when for hundreds of years, lexicographers could not know how people were using their dictionaries. 

“We know what people are thinking about because we know what words are being looked up,” Sokolowski said. “Whatever is on people’s minds on a given day is what they’re looking up in the dictionary.”

Amherst College has a series of coincidental connections to lexicography as well, Sokolowski said: Webster helped co-found Amherst College, and the dictionary itself is based in nearby Springfield. Due to this proximity, students in the course will visit the Merriam-Webster office.

The course will also investigate various roles played by dictionaries today and throughout history, including how dictionaries have come to exert linguistic authority, how they reflect changing aspects of society, and differences in dictionaries across cultures and historical periods.

To investigate these ideas, the students will study what dictionaries would look like to authors such as William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, language games such as Scrabble and crossword puzzles, and how modern dictionaries differ across cultures, Stavans said. In France, for instance, a council called the Académie Française uses the dictionary as a “tool to legislate what words are expected,” in contrast to societies where dictionaries reflect what words the public uses. 

The difference between what are known as prescriptive and descriptive approaches can be seen in mainstream English dictionaries in the United States, where Merriam-Webster is more descriptive — and hence more readily accepting of popular usages — while Webster’s New World dictionaries are more prescriptive.

The idea for the course “had been percolating for quite some time,” Stavans said. After immigrating to the United States from Mexico in 1985, he became fascinated by the way the Spanish language changes across different countries, as well the way that immigrants from various countries placed their own variations on English spoken in New York City, where Stavans lived at the time. 

The course was borne from reaching “a certain point where I have moved from being a collector and user and maker of dictionaries to thinking that it’s time to build a new generation that is going to be interested in lexicography, and dictionaries in particular,” Stavans said.

“It’s really that long-term passion that I’m hoping to pass on to that next generation,” he said. 

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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