Reflections on Life at the Word-face of the Cambridge Greek Lexicon

Simon Westripp

Following promises and announcements of forthcoming publication since the early 2000s, the editors of the Cambridge Greek Lexicon[1] have – mirabile dictu – made good on their word, or rather on almost 39,000 of them. For the better part of a quarter of a century, a small team of researchers and word-smiths in Cambridge has been re-reading and re-assessing a significant portion of the Ancient Greek corpus, spanning the millennium from the epic works of Homer to the prose of Plutarch, with the aim of producing an up-to-date lexicon of the language.

Such an ambitious and comprehensive undertaking has not been attempted and brought to fruition since the world-famous Greek-English Lexicon of H.G. Liddell and R. Scott was first published in 1843. Much has changed in 180 years, even in the world of Classical Greek. It was my fortune to be involved in the production of this μέγα βιβλίον, from 2011 as a naively enthusiastic summer intern, and from 2014 as an increasingly realistic editor. Here I offer some thoughts and reflections on my time at the cutting edge of Greek lexicography.

The team who met the telos: editors, typesetters and CUP staff.

Within the Classics Faculty at Cambridge was a scriptorium, replete with editions of Classical texts, commentaries, reference works on every topic from cooking utensils to Pre-Socratic cosmology, lexicographic slips, folders of draft entries and a ponderous miscellany of newspaper cuttings from days of yore, mostly reporting with great confidence that the project would shortly be completed. Here it was that our team of lexicographers scraped their way through the alphabet, with individual letters apportioned to each editor (save for Alpha, too large for mortal hands). The chorus in Aeschylus’ Persians 238 refer to the silver-mines at Laureion as a θησαυρός, and our scriptorium was a treasure-house as we mined the language of Classical Greek, digging through old lexica, commentaries and apparatus critici, sifting citations, conjectures and contexts, weighing up definitions, translations and explanations.

As productive and efficient as our own silver-mine was, we became increasingly dependent on a gold-mine across the Atlantic, the θησαυρὸς τῆς χρυσῆς πολιτείας Καλιφορνίας, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG), hosted at the University of California in Irvine. The arrival of the online searchable TLG was a watershed moment for the Greek Lexicon Project, and led to a marked increase in ambition. It was now possible, using this database, to gather, within seconds, every citation of a particular Greek word, in all its forms, and, where practicable, analyse the varying contexts for meaning and nuance. Such became our reliance on the TLG, that my colleagues and I were, on numerous occasions, blocked from the website for “excessive use”.

Battered copies of Liddell and Scott (and Jones – and supplements) in the CGL scriptorium.

Now that the lexicon is in the public domain, I shall attempt to answer a few commonly asked questions in order to give some further insights into the work that lies behind it.

How many words does the Lexicon contain?

There are 38,798 headwords, with more nouns (11,620) than any other part of speech. This count does not include cross-references, of which there are over 7,500 – hopefully a heartening statistic for students. No time or expense was spared when it came to cross-references and the labelling of dialectal and irregular forms of words. There are, for example, 115 different forms of the verb εἰμί, to be, which are catalogued, labelled and cross-referenced as appropriate.

Are there many new words?

As well as words from more recently discovered and published fragments (including the poets Sappho and Callimachus), there are a number of compelling conjectures – guesses by scholars to repair corrupt texts – which have been proposed over the years but never before printed in lexica. We have also included a few new conjectures of our own.

A further example of the inclusion of new words may be given courtesy of Apollonius Rhodius, the Alexandrian epic poet. Having spent some weeks reading through different editions of the Argonautica, tabulating the manuscript variants and differing editorial choices, it struck me that Apollonius’ use of tmesis (the separation of prepositional prefixes from the verb with which they usually form compounds) was rather more widespread and innovative – some might say egregious – than the available lexica would suggest. Compound verbs such as ἀμφιστρωφάω, ἀνανωμάω, διεκρύομαι and διεξοχλίζω, for example, are not to be found in existing Greek lexica, and other verbs, such as ἐκπροιάλλω, although picked up by other works (including the Diccionario Griego-Español, 1980–), are not recorded as being used by Apollonius. We have thus added not only new headwords, but a great many authorial citations.

The CGL entry for θησαυρός.

How many authors are included?

Around 90 is perhaps the most accurate answer that can be given. We include, for example, numerous anonymous fragments of lyric poetry.

How did you decide which authors to include?

In seeking primarily to be of use to students, we prioritised covering texts and authors which students were most likely to encounter and wish to read, while also supporting wider reading where possible. We jettisoned several authors and works over the years, including Strabo, Galen, Hippocrates, Lucian, the Greek Anthology, and the scientific works of Aristotle and Theophrastus.

Why? Well, the specialised medical vocabulary of Hippocrates would be of fairly narrow interest, we decided. Lucian was simply so neologistically profuse that he would achieve an unwelcome dominance on the page. The Greek Anthology was among the last to fall; it was, unfortunately, simply too large a corpus to fit within our agreed page-binding limits. But we did our best to add flavour, for example by including the works of some minor lyric poets.

Comparatively little space was taken up by the fragments of Lycophronides, Hermolochus, Castorion and Lamprocles, so these authors are welcomed to the stage. Others, such as Neophron, who is included in the Oxford Classical Text selection of fragments of Greek tragedy, are not similarly welcomed. The editor of this OCT, also the Editor-in-Chief of the Lexicon, condemned Neophron as “wretched”. For many other authors and works we spiritedly discussed the suitability and feasibility of incorporating them, and had to make many a difficult call. Those who have made the final cut represent a compromise between different editors’ preferences, as well as considerations of the available time and space.

Which is the longest entry?

In terms of the number of sense sections, the longest entry is the verb ἔχω, with 55 divisions of sense.

Is that sense 52 or 53? When echo follows delta, alpha, zulu.

Which word has the greatest number of homonyms?

The word οὖλος has four separate entries, including adjectives meaning “woolly” and “destructive”, and a noun perhaps meaning “a sheaf of corn”. It is also a dialectal form of ὅλος.

What would be a typical day of work?

This is a harder question to answer, as the days could vary enormously, depending on the word-entries involved. A word which occurs only once, with a clear derivation and sense, could be researched, drafted, proof-read and inputted within a few minutes. Others, such as prepositions, could take weeks to research, draft and revise.

A significant amount of my time would generally be spent reading and revising draft entries (some of which were more than 15 years old and stored on floppy disks), supplementing missing entries or citations, ensuring consistency of formatting, encoding the entries in XML files, sending these to the typesetters to turn into proofs, before checking and annotating these proofs in collaboration with an in-house team of proof-readers. One of the greatest challenges facing the team was achieving consistency throughout the 1,500-page work; consistency of style, layout, abbreviations, corpus of texts, manuscript readings, cross-references, spelling and phraseology. It is no exaggeration to say that years were devoted to achieving as great a uniformity as possible.

The XML skeleton behind the θησαυρός entry.

Which word was the most difficult to define?

There are a number of contenders, but there is one group of entries which went through perhaps more re-drafts than any other: the rowing terms. Let us take one example, ἑξήρης, defined by LSJ as “[a ship] with six banks of oars”. Are we really to imagine, as this definition would imply to a novice, a ship twice the height of a trireme, with six tiers of rowers? The LSJ entry for εἰκοσήρης, ba(l)dly translated as “with twenty banks of oars”, confirms not. The larger type of modern cruise ship only has around twelve levels. The numerical prefix for these words clearly cannot refer simply to the tiers of rowers. Recent studies into the nautical terms of the Ancient Greeks have involved the physical reconstruction of such ships, and it has been demonstrated that anything beyond three tiers is impractical, requiring very long, heavy oars, with superhumanly synchronised rowers, and would ultimately offer only a limited added efficiency of manpower. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon entry reads as follows:

six-rowed ship (w. three banks of oars, and rowers seated in groups of six, so that every oar was operated by two oarsmen).

We cannot be certain that each configuration of rowers for each type of vessel was uniformly consistent, but in each instance we give the most plausible arrangement. It would be far easier to include diagrams for such terms (and it is worth noting that LSJ does resort to a pictorial definition on one occasion, s.v. ἄρβηλος).

The Lexicon greets the patient Classicists of the Classical Library at Cambridge.

Which is your favourite entry?

From a pragmatic point of view, the answer would be a word such as ἑπτά, which has but a single, unambiguous and unchanging meaning. In terms of entertainment, I enjoy the surrealism of some of the Aristophanic contexts which are described, including that for κατακνάω, “of a cheese-grater, envisaged as quartermaster.” The sweeping elegance of an entry such as βαθύς, which sifts so many more nuances than Liddell-Scott-Jones, is ever to be admired. Where LSJ alighted upon a felicitous phrase, we endeavoured to keep it: I remember a definition of πίναξ, “an astrological chart, used for casting nativities,” bringing a festive smile to the face.

Some words which were, prima facie, unremarkable, could lead one to unexpected places. One example which comes to mind is ἀναπτύω, “spit up,” used, intriguingly, of a “mechanical snail” in Polybius. Some background research led to a 1937 article on ancient automata by Alfred Rehm, in which – unsuccessfully yet brilliantly – he decides to sketch a reconstruction.[2]

What next?

The publication of the Lexicon this April is not the end. An e-book version has just been released, and negotiations have long been underway to enhance the accessibility and usability of the Lexicon through a variety of digital tools and resources. This should also make it easier to update and expand in the future. We also have a very large quantity of marginalia and annotations which may one day be made available, offering a behind-the-scenes look at how we arrived at some of our definitions and wordings, as well as giving further references and citations. The treasure-house, in short, is far from empty.

Simon Westripp is a graduate of Sidney Sussex and Girton Colleges Cambridge. He worked on the editorial staff of the Cambridge Greek Lexicon from 2014 until its publication. In the summer of 2020 he fled to the Baltic states, where he remains, learning about building renovation, forestry, and the language and music of Latvia.

Further Reading (and Viewing):

For further details about the project, explore these pages. For more historical context, see John Chadwick’s Lexicographica Graeca (Oxford UP, 1996), Pauline Hire’s article “The Cambridge New Greek Lexicon Project,” Classical World 98 (2005) 179–85, and various chapters of the multi-authored appraisal Liddell & Scott: The History, Methodology and Languages of the World’s Leading Lexicon of Ancient Greek (edited by Chris Stray, Michael Clarke and Joshua Katz, Oxford UP, 2019).

A launch event for the dictionary, hosted by the Cambridge Centre for Greek Studies, can be viewed here; a separate event, hosted by the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, is available here.


1 My thanks go to Dr Patrick James and Dr Bruce Fraser for first introducing me to the word-face, and to all the other editors, whose wide-ranging expertise and good humour made the task of writing this Lexicon far from an act of drudgery.
2 “Antike Automobile,” Philologus 92 (1937) 317–30.