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