Boswell's Scots dictionary found after 200 years

A LOST dictionary of the Scots language compiled by the famous 18th century biographer James Boswell has been rediscovered after more than 200 years.

The unsigned manuscript, confirmed by top Boswell scholars as in his hand-writing, includes 39 pages of the writer and lawyer's draft dictionary and covers about 800 Scots words and phrases.

Linguistic gems run from the earliest known examples of Scots words like bubbly-jock, for a turkey cock, and dabberlock, a kind of edible seaweed, to the Scots verb to dight, to wipe. It includes gardyloo, the traditional Edinburgh warning cry for slops about to be thrown in the street, but intriguingly spells it jardelou.

The manuscript was found by chance by Dr Susan Rennie, a leading expert in the Scots language, who identified it during research in the Bodleian Library in Oxford on the 19th century Scottish lexicographer John Jamieson.

The library bought it as part of Jamieson's papers in 1927 but several clues led her to recognise it as Boswell's work.

"It took me a while to figure out," said Rennie, whose book on Jamieson and his 1808 dictionary comes out next year. "I had known that Boswell had planned a Scots dictionary for a while. It's not complete, it's just what he started."

Boswell is best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson, the famous biography and account of the English author's travels around Scotland in the 1770s.

Johnson famously compiled his Dictionary Of The English Language published in 1755.

In his own writings, the Edinburgh-born lawyer and writer describes showing Johnson, his long-time friend, a "specimen" of his own intended dictionary in October 1769. While Johnson famously mocked Boswell's Scottish heritage, he encouraged him to work at it.

"He advised me to complete a dictionary of words peculiar to Scotland, of which I showed him a specimen," Boswell wrote. Johnson told him that by collecting his own country's words "you will do a useful thing towards the history of language".

The manuscript includes a "specimen page", with entries written in French, another clue to authorship by Boswell who embarked on a European tour of his own in the 1760s and was keen to use the language. But Boswell never completed the work and later abandoned it, with the early draft passing into his son's hands after his death in 1795. After his son auctioned the contents of his library in 1825, its whereabouts became unknown but it later became attached to a copy of Jamieson's work, which was later acquired by the Bodleian.

Rennie, a freelance lexicographer, said: "I see it as a great privilege for me to look in that (Jamieson's dictionary] and find it. It was just lucky."

She admits being hugely excited when she compared the manuscript, uncovered a year ago, to Boswell's letters in the National Library of Scotland, and realised the handwriting was the same.

"I am currently working on transcribing the manuscript as well as trying to fill in gaps in its extraordinary history. I hope that a future edition, either print or digital, will provide useful material for linguists, lexicographers and literary scholars who may be interested in what the manuscript reveals about 18th century Scots, or in Boswell's own glosses on words which may occur in his letters and journals."

William Zachs, a collector and scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment and a Boswell specialist, said: "There is absolutely no question that this is by Boswell. It appears he wanted to do for the Scots language what Johnson has done for the English language."

Interest is mounting in Boswell as a significant Scottish literary figure with an inaugural Boswell Book Festival this month in Ayrshire, with major speakers exploring subjects including the art of memoir and biography.

Christopher Fletcher, head of Western manuscripts at the Bodleian, said Rennie's find was "tremendously exciting. It does immediately make me wonder what else is still in the collection that we don't know about."

In 1764, in his account of his travels in Holland, Boswell wrote: "The Scottish language is being lost every day, and in a short time will become quite unintelligible. To me, who have the true patriotic soul of an old Scotsman, that would seem a pity."

n tcornwell@scotlandonsunday.com