Barry Baldwin finds some humour in a most unexpected source.

William Shepard Walsh was probably right to say: ‘A joke might appear to be to be the last thing one would seek in a dictionary’, but he did excavate one example of humour from an unexpected quarter: The Greek Lexicon of Liddell & Scott.

It is found in their entry for sykophantes (συκοφάντης—our word ‘sycophant’). This term has various meanings. The last one listed derives it from people who informed against those who exported figs stolen from the sacred trees of Athens. On this, Liddell (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice) and Scott observed, ‘But this explanation is probably a mere figment’.

Shepard Walsh thundered: ‘Even puns’ and very bad puns, have found their way into the most ponderous lexicons. But, to the credit of Liddell and Scott, this ghastly attempt at a joke appeared only in four editions, when, yielding to public opinion, the word ‘figment’ was changed to ‘invention.’

In the current 1968 edition, the conclusion was further altered to read ‘modern explanations are mere guesses.’ One has to wonder how much actual ‘public opinion’ was heard on the matter? Greek lexica are (after all) not usually the subject of mass concern.

This offending paronomasia did not appear in the first edition of 1844. Could it be more than coincidence that the first recorded use of the phrase ‘figments of the imagination’ appears to be in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847)? Or, given the relationships between Alice Liddell and her parents, might we see Lewis Carroll, a notorious punster, as a possible inspiration?

As edition succeeded edition, this famous ‘figment’ excited various individuals to publicize their thoughts on the matter via a flurry of communications in Notes and Queries.  One contributor, Dr. V. Paten-Payne, dubbed the pun ‘unintentional’, referring to the fifth edition (1864). Alfred Ainger (a specialist in Latin verse composition) noted that ‘it undoubtedly occurs’ in this same one. Three other correspondents cited its occurrence in editions 4-6. W. G. Boswell-Stone ‘vaguely recalls’ an obituary of Scott in the Daily News which remarked that there are two jokes in the Lexicon, not specifying the other, adding that the figment did not occur in the latest edition. This prompted one E. A. R. Ball to ask where the second one was. One response was to cite Dr. Greenhill, Dean of Christ Church, to the effect that he was unaware of any second one—but this one has been unearthed.

It was, in fact, very likely to be their definition of ἄλοχος (alokhos): ‘Bedmate, the a being copulative.’

Apropos of Scott, T. Selby Henrey wrote:

‘Oxford men have been heard to say that, when Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon was first published, it contained not a few touches of hidden humour, which were deleted in later editions—one explanation of this being that Scott smuggled them in and Liddell was too matter-of-fact to detect them.’  From this, might one surmise that Liddell never read his daughter’s apotheosis, Alice in Wonderland?

Liddell died in 1898, ten years after Scott. This prompted no less than Thomas Hardy to knock off a droll poem, ‘Liddell and Scott, On the Completion of their Lexicon’ which can be found (with useful annotation) at:

Nowhere in it does he allude to it as containing any jokes or puns.

Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott

Henrey, who cited the ‘figment’, adduced other examples of lexical levity. One was from D. B. Munro’s Homeric Grammar, wherein the middle voice of λούω (λούομαι – louomai) is elucidated thus: ‘I wash myself: this is comparatively rare.’ Hervey glosses: ‘It is current in Oxford that an undergrad first detected the humorous side of this sentence.’

Despite the deleters, it is congenial to conclude by observing how the ‘figment’ has hung on. In Christine Longford’s novel, Making Conversation (1931), a friend of the heroine Martha, reading Classics at Oxford during The Great War, when told about Liddell and Scott’s ‘only joke’, responds, ‘What a perfect Oxford joke!’ The next sentence reads: ‘The serious student looked hurt.’

Other survivals, drawn at random, range from The Ohio Educational Monthly to H. R. Hall’s A Season’s Work at Ur-‘Ubaid, Abu Sharain-Erdu-and Elsewhere.

So, we may leave Liddell and Scott in full fig.

Barry Baldwin did his B.A. and PhD degrees at the University of Nottingham and is now Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary (Canada) & Fellow of The Royal Society of Canada. He has published 12 books and scores of articles/chapters/reviews, including one on ancient humour in Ad Familiares…