The Cambridge Greek Lexicon: An Interview with Prof. James Diggle

Several years ago I posted about the ongoing Cambridge Greek Lexicon project, which at that time was nearing completion at the Faculty of Classics. There is much to say about the project, and the Faculty has an excellent website that explains much of the history. As often happens with very large-scale projects — like a lexicon of ancient Greek, built from the ground up — things were periodically delayed. But I have it on good authority that publication is now extremely imminent.

That good authority is Prof. James Diggle himself, who is the main editor of the lexicon. He was kind enough to respond to several questions I had whirling around in my head, knowing that the lexicon must be near to publication. I’m grateful for his willingness to shed some more light upon the process and what we can expect of this exciting new resource.

The interview follows, and below it you can see a sample page from the lexicon to get a taste of what to expect.

The Interview

This project has been ongoing for over two decades. What were some of the biggest challenges along the way?

Because the project has taken very much longer than initially envisaged, it has been necessary to raise a good deal of money to fund it. We have been very fortunate in securing the support of many institutional and individual benefactors.

What are some ways in which the initial vision for the lexicon has changed or developed, and why?

The project owes its origin, and much of its method, to Dr John Chadwick (1920–98), a pioneer in the study of Linear B with a lifelong interest in lexicography extending from his service on the staff of the Oxford Latin Dictionary (1946–52) to the publication of Lexicographica Graeca: Contributions to the Lexicography of Ancient Greek in 1996. In 1997 he proposed to The Faculty Board of Classics in Cambridge that it should oversee a project to revise the Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott. This Lexicon was published in 1889 and has remained continuously in print, but, unlike its parent, the Greek–English Lexicon (first published in 1843), has never been revised. It was hoped that the project might be completed within five years. However, it soon became clear that the plan, as originally conceived, was  problematic. The Intermediate Greek–English Lexicon was antiquated in concept and in detail, and required more than revision.

Following John Chadwick’s unexpected death in 1998, it was decided to widen the scope of the project, and to compile a new and independent Lexicon. This would still be of intermediate size and designed primarily to meet the needs of modern students, but it would also be designed to be of interest to scholars, in so far as it would be based on a fresh reading of the Greek texts and on principles differing from those of LSJ. The coverage of the Lexicon extends from Homer to the early second century AD. Most of the major authors who fall within that period are included. Some selection was necessary for reasons of space and the
availability of time.

What is your favorite thing about this lexicon that will truly set it apart from other recent projects?

That it does not merely copy material from existing lexica but is based on a fresh reading of the texts and independent judgement about the meaning of words and the interpretation of individual passages.

The lexicon is meant to be geared towards students. What are some of the ways in which that approach differentiates this lexicon from others (e.g., LSJ)?

Entries are organised not primarily according to chronological or grammatical criteria, but according to meaning, with a view to showing the developing senses of words and the relationships between those senses. Other contextual and explanatory information is included, such as the typical circumstances in which a word may be used.

Some more advanced users of the lexicon may be surprised to find there are no citations provided, only authors. Can you explain the reasoning behind this decision?

The attestation of a word or sense is indicated by author abbreviations, not by citation of precise references to specific passages. Nor, for the most part, are Greek quotations given. The omission of such citations and quotations allows room for the inclusion of a great deal of additional material, in particular for fuller description of meanings and for illustration of usage in a wider range of passages. Citation of specific passages, especially if they are not translated, can be unhelpful to the learner, and, by their very selectivity, are in danger of giving a partial or distorted picture.

A massive amount of digital information has been compiled and analyzed for this project. Now that publication is on the horizon, what will happen to that digital material?

We have, indeed, accumulated extensive files of information and comment, which we would like to make available, if the means can be found. Discussion is ongoing about this.

Many of my colleagues in biblical studies will want to see this resource made available for bible software programs, like Logos or Accordance. Can you tell us more about whether and how the lexicon will be made available digitally?

Discussion about digital publication is ongoing. I can’t give any more information at the moment.

Within my own circles, LSJ has become notorious for certain methodological fumbles when it comes to how the Septuagint was handled (Caird and Lee were instrumental in pointing these out). Does this lexicon include evidence from the LXX? Why or why not?

Our coverage of the Scriptures is limited to the Gospels. We wanted some attestation of later Greek prose, and for this reason our coverage extends as far as Plutarch (Lives), including along the way Polybius and the Gospels. We wanted to include some attestation of the NT, and the Gospels seemed the most useful choice.

Congratulations on coming so far in such a massive project. Now that it is so close to completion, what are the last few steps being taken before publication?

In the course of reading the proofs, we devoted much effort to ensuring consistency in matters both large and small. Since the Lexicon represents the combined work, extending over many years, of six editors, inconsistencies of treatment and style inevitably occur, even though each entry has been scrutinised by at least one other editor. When you read straight through from start to finish, at proof stage, you have the opportunity to spot discrepancies and inconsistencies which have slipped through the net.

A Sample Page

2 comments

  1. No citations?! How is it possible to engage critically with a dictionary that does not cite its evidence? How can I be sure, for example, that λύω means “release (its throat)” (14) in Aristophanes? I will have to find and check every single occurrence of the verb in the Aristophanic corpus. I shudder to think at the loss of time and life that this will cause for advanced users and future lexicographers.

    1. Yes I admit that I feel very similarly as a fellow “concerned lexicographer” (Are there any unconcerned lexicographers? Seems like an innate characteristic). I suppose, if it is a student-focused lexicon, most envisioned users would not be checking the editor’s sense divisions anyhow. Personally, I do wish citations were present and I am holding out hope that somehow the dataset is made available — surely the supporting citations must be cataloged somewhere!

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