The Ancient Greek Lexicon Published after 23 Years in the Making

by 24USATVSept. 14, 2021, 10 p.m. 18
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Cambridge University Press has published the Cambridge Greek Lexicon after 23 years of work by the University’s classics faculty. The group was led by the lexicon’s editor-in-chief, James Diggle, a professor at Queens College who taught Greek and Latin at the University of Cambridge for 16 years.

This renowned group of scholars worked to produce new and contemporary definitions of some of the oldest fragments of ancient Greek language. One of the groups’ primary goals was to create definitions that were highly readable and understandable — to break with the dense and unintelligible english definitions of ancient Greek in lexicon’s past.

The process of forging these contemporary English definitions required the team to completely reread the entire canon of ancient Greek literature from Homer to the second century AD.

The scholars then sifted through the Greek alphabet’s 24 characters on digital databases to create “a clear, modern, and accessible guide” to these archaic words, providing clarity for the various valences they acquire when used in different contexts by different writers.

The project was instigated by the scholar John Chadwick in 1997. Chadwick had worked on The Decipherment of Linear B and The Mycenaean World for Cambridge University Press. The two titles reconstructed Mycenaean Greece using written documents from the period, creating a striking portrait of the era.

How Diggle and his team reinvented the ancient Greek lexicon

Diggle and his team initially thought the lexicon would take only five years to complete, but quickly realized that the pre-existing scholarship was inadequate for what they were trying to accomplish:

“Soon after work began it became clear that it was not possible to revise the Intermediate Lexicon; it was too antiquated in concept, design and content. It was better to start afresh by compiling a new lexicon.

“We didn’t realize at the time the magnitude of the task, and it was only because of advances in technology that we were able to take it on. With the help of two online databases, the Perseus Digital Library and later the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, we undertook the ambitious task of reading again most of Greek literature. We then had to appoint additional editorial staff and raise a huge amount of financial support.

“It took us over 20 years because we decided that if we were going to do it we must do it thoroughly.”

Cambridge University Press worked with the team’s typesetters to develop a unique text design for the lexicon, hoping to optimize the dictionary’s readability as much as possible. The finished two-volume lexicon has roughly 37,000 Greek words gathered from the texts of 90 authors over the span of 1,500 ages.

The scholarly and cultural importance of the press’s lexicon cannot be overstated. Michael Sharp, the publisher at Cambridge University Press, said that “The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is one of the most important classic books we’ve ever published. It represents a milestone in the history of classics, and in the history of the university of Cambridge and of Cambridge university Press.”

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