D is for Dictionary

3 12 2017

spanish dictionary(This post was timed to coincide with the most recent update of the Macmillan English Dictionary, and first appeared on the  Macmillan Dictionary blog here.)

I love dictionaries almost as much as I love old coursebooks. I have a two-volume Spanish-English dictionary published in Cadíz in MDCCCLXIII – which I think is 1863. I picked it up for a song in the flea market in Barcelona and it’s in great shape. In the English volume it includes words like duskishly, porterage, and crupper, so I’m not betting on it being of that much use in 2017. Presciently (or perhaps duskishly?) the writer – one Don Mariano Velasquez de la Cadena – comments in the preface:

Language, like dress, is subject to continual change; and many phrases which were deemed elegant two centuries ago are almost unintelligible at the present day, in consequence of being displaced by other [sic] which were then unknown.

This is as true in our own field – applied linguistics and language education – as it is in other specialized fields. It was driven home to me just this week (thanks to a blog post by Richard Smith) as I read a book published exactly 100 years ago, called The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages, by Harold E. Palmer.

H E Palmer copy

Harold Palmer, circa 1920 (from Smith 1999)


Palmer, in case you didn’t know, taught and trained extensively in Japan, and  ‘did more than any other single individual to establish English language teaching (ELT) as an autonomous branch of language education in the first half of the 20th century and to give it the ‘applied linguistic’ direction to which it has remained loyal ever since’ (Smith 1999 p.vii). Reading Palmer, though, is not always easy, as he uses a number of terms which ‘are almost unintelligible at the present day’ (to quote Don Mariano). He refers frequently to ergons, for example, and the science of ergonics. And to morphons and polylogs and the catenizing. Fortunately, Palmer supplies a glossary, which explains that an ergon is ‘any speech unit considered from the point of view of its function or powers of combining with other units’. Morphons are what we might now call morphemes; polylogs are multi-word items, and catenizing is ‘learning to pronounce accurately and rapidly a given succession of sounds’. He uses this last term a lot, since it is an integral part of his methodology, but I am not sure if we have a contemporary equivalent.

Having just completed the second edition of An A – Z of ELT (now The New A to Z of ELT), I am particularly interested in the way terminology shifts, evolves and morphs like this. Over ten years have elapsed between the two editions, and it’s been salutary to see how rapidly some terms lose their currency while new ones are enlisted in response to developments in language description, methodology and second language acquisition theory.

An obvious area of rapid change is in educational technology: even the term educational technology didn’t get an entry in the first edition, where computer assisted language learning (CALL) was made to serve for virtually the whole field. Now there are separate entries for mobile learning, adaptive learning, blended learning, and the flipped classroom –  all new arrivals since 2006.

Another growth area has been in what I loosely call the ‘neoliberal turn’ – that is, the way the discourses of economic neoliberalism have been co-opted to serve the discourses of education, such that words like accountability, outcomes, competencies, granularity and life-skills (or twenty-first century skills) now regularly feature in ELT conference programs. In the entry on life skills, I manage to sneak in the suggestion that there might be something a little bit faddish about this development:

Concepts like communication, learner training and (inter-) cultural awareness have all been central to language teaching methodology for several decades now. The renewed interest in such skills may be an effect of the way education is being shaped to serve the needs of the new, globalized economy, with English playing a central role.

Indeed, by the time the third edition comes out, will granularity seem as dated then as ergons are to us now?


Smith, R.C. (1999) The writings of Harold E. Palmer: An overview. Tokyo: Hon-no-Tomosha.

Postscript:  This is the 200th post on this blog (see Index) and it’s appropriate that it’s about dictionaries since it was a kind of dictionary (The A – Z of ELT) that was the impetus behind it. At the year’s end, it also seems like a good time to take a break, comfortable in the knowledge that the blog is still very much visited, even during rest periods – if the graphic below, showing average views per day per month, is any guide. It’s also good to know that the website for The New A-Z of ELT is up and running (click on the book cover graphic top right) so if you need your weekly dose of An A -Z, you can always buy the book 😉  See you some time in 2018!average views per day





9 responses

3 12 2017
Erzsebet Bekes

Fascinating as ever. I will buy the New A-Z when I’m in Europe in the spring. My own love for dictionaries and grammar books (like the one on the 4500 conjugations of 235 verbs in Modern Greek) means that I read them regularly, often before falling asleep. I find it as soothing as a natural sleeping pill.

3 12 2017


there is an interesting game here where you can try to create your own mini-dictionary – http://lexis.uqam.ca/webDictGameHowTo/instructions-en.html , which may show you how hard it is to define things & so maybe the recently passed scholar Jerry Fodor is right – that there can never be any satisfactory definition : )


3 12 2017

T is for thanks for an informative post 🙂

4 12 2017
Amaal Al.Farra

Thank you

6 12 2017

Have a great deserving rest, genius….

9 12 2017

I guess most readers here are a bit geeky about words in one way or another: I’ve been a big fan of etymological dictionaries myself since I was given one when I was 9 years old – about 8 inches thick! The archaeology of language still fascinates me.

Thanks for the link to Dr. Richard Smith’s book on Palmer – excellent. As usual with your site, one thing led to another, and I found another publication – edited by Richard Smith – which is particularly relevant to my situation – the British Council’s “Teaching in Low Resource Classrooms: Voices of Experience”.

Have a great holiday, cheers.

9 12 2017
Erzsebet Bekes

Hi Patrick, you will be pleased to learn that I am organising a book review competition on the BC publication above: I announced it for the more than ten thousand members of Teacher Voices: Professional Development Facebook group. The three judges come from various countries of Southeast Asia. I am based in Ecuador, so it’s going to be an interesting exercise. It is a prelude to the setting up of an academic writing buddy system whereby inexperienced authors peer review their first draft, send it to a more experienced mentor and the improved version goes to the top, an experienced, published author, who will also take on the person in the middle tier as a mentee. That’s the dream, at least. Pertinent article / proposal may have already been published in ELT Magazine, or coming out very soon in the December issue. Let me know if you would like to be a mentor!

11 12 2017

Hi Erzsebet,

I checked some of your writings on ELT magazine, really fascinating accounts of teaching in the field! And I completely agree that many academics assume EFL/ESL are the same thing, or gloss over the differences – I’m sure this reflects their narrow home-based experience.

I think it’s also symptomatic of a broader problem of SLA research taking on a life of its own, independent of teaching, a research career safe within academic walls.

Over the last year I’ve reviewed half a dozen of the SLA textbooks recommended for MA courses, and they all sum up that SLA research is inconclusive and contradictory. My own opinion is that a lot of it is also fundamentally misguided, but that’s a much longer story. A far cry from the classroom research of Harold Palmer for example.

And of course teachers have much greater experience of second language development processes than researchers have anyway…

Thanks for your kind offer, I appreciate it but I’m really overloaded with projects for the new year already.

11 12 2017
Erzsebet Bekes

Hi, Patrick, I’m glad you found the EFL articles informative. Wait until a couple of us, volunteers, go to the landfill site of Cateura to teach English to members of the Recycled Orchestra! Last Saturday I showed Landfillharmonic to teacher trainees at the state university near Cuenca where we are running an English Film Club. Most of the students there come from underprivileged, indigenous communities and have almost no English at all. They are not English degree students, but are expected to reach B1/B2 level before they can graduate. Many of their teachers at the uni have that level only on a very good day. So that’s the challenge and the reason why I’ve volunteered to do extra-curricular activities with the students. Because it’s not an immersion situation and, therefore, exposure is minimal. Here’s my e-mail address in case you want to carry on with a dialogue on action research, authentic writing tasks and global issues. I would not want to misappropriate this space. ebekes@yahoo.co.uk

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