Sunday, 12 December 2010

Supponere: a cautionary tale about the Word-List

In my last post I mentioned in passing that the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List was ‘a by-product published in 1965 when work began on the dictionary proper’.  It is worth stressing that the Word-List is not a dictionary: the quotation slips on which it is based have not been checked for accuracy, and its definitions are not the product of lexicography.  My aim here is to illustrate this point.

A lexicographer working on our 175-odd quotations for ‘supponere’ might suggest the following basic taxonomy: to place underneath; to subject; to subsume; to substitute; to suppose; to support.  But the first edition of the Word-List (1934) also gives ‘to suppress, abolish’, with an attestation date of 1315.  And in the revised edition (1965) – billed as involving ‘a re-examination of the material previously used’ – the definition has been trimmed (‘to suppress’) and the date has been misprinted as 1318, but essentially the entry remains intact. 

Now, there is no intrinsic reason why ‘supponere’ should not have been used to mean ‘to suppress’, but from my vantage point – with so many other pieces of the jigsaw before my eyes – there was a warning sign: this usage would be attested by only one of our quotations.  So it was with some suspicion that I came to check the slip in question:

And sure enough, the very next word (after ‘perpetuo supposuit’) turned out to be ‘interdicto’.  So what the text actually says is that the Pope placed the Templars under, or subjected them to, perpetual interdict – which means that the Word-List's definition ‘to suppress’ is simply the result of an unnoticed misreading by the slip-taker.

I would be surprised to find a page of the Word-List that did not include several errors of precisely this kind.  So, to anyone who uses it as a medieval Latin dictionary faute de mieux: caveat lector!