Barry Baldwin finds more humour in the lexicography

William Shepard Walsh, who told us that ‘a joke might appear to be the last thing one would seek in a dictionary’, did excavate one example of humour from an unexpected quarter: the Greek Lexicon of Liddell & Scott.

Liddell and Scott as it appears currently in its 9th edition

In their entry for συκοφάντης (our ‘Sycophant’), they list various meanings. The last one listed derives it from people who informed against people 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 & 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 latest edition I have (1968, frequently reprinted), 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 not usually the subject of mass concern, and in fact, ‘invention’ was used in the first four editions, ‘figment’ cropping up in the fifth and sixth.

Luscious Greek figs

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


Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

As edition succeeded edition, this famous figment excited various individuals to publicize their thoughts on the matter in a flurry of communications to 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: which 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 it was, in fact, very likely to have been their definition of ἄλοχος (alochos): ‘Bedmate, the alpha being copulative.’

As to Liddell’s co-writer Scott, T. Selby Henry wrote: ‘ Oxford men have been heard to say that, when Liddell & 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.’  This makes one perhaps surmise that Liddell never read his daughter’s apotheosis Alice in Wonderland?  Or else, in the words of Christopher Stray  ‘perhaps <only> after the sound of unseemly mirth reached the editors’ ears.’

Liddell died in 1898, ten years after Scott. This prompted no less a man than Thomas Hardy to knock off a droll poem, ‘Liddell and Scott, On the Completion of Their Lexicon.’ Nowhere in it does he allude to it as containing any jokes or puns.  For the text of this poem see: Thomas Hardy, 'Liddell and Scott' | Faculty of Classics (

Henry adduced other examples of lexical levity. One was from D. B.Munro’s Homeric Grammar (1891) wherein the middle voice of λούομαι (louomai) is elucidated thus: ‘ I wash myself; this is comparatively rare.’ Henrey glosses: ‘ It is current in Oxford that an undergraduate first detected the humorous side of this sentence.’

Despite the deleters, it is congenial to observe 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.’ So, we leave Liddell and Scott in full fig.

Two further levities. They illustrated one verb for sexual intercourse only with the plural feminine passive particle προσκυλμέναι (proskulmenai) with the coy ‘ ladies with a past.’ On the basic word for testicle ὄρχις (orxis), they observe ‘frequently in the plural’—we hope so!

I subjoin a cognate curiosity from Lewis and Short’s long standard Latin dictionary. They defined the word sellarius as ‘One that practises lewdness upon a settle.’ How many people nowadays know what a ‘settle’ is? I remember my own schoolboy bafflement. The Oxford Latin Dictionary sees sellarius as denoting a type of male prostitute, connecting it with sellarium (privy), adding a second unrelated ‘Member of a chariot-racing establishment (of uncertain function).’

One wonders if this latter also had a sexual connotation? The internet Urban Dictionary states that in modern slang ‘ Chariot-Race’ denotes a quartet participating together in carnal congress of various kinds. J. N. Adams,  (in The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (1982)) has various examples of words for racing and riding and the like in erotic contexts.  But to settle ‘settle’. English dictionaries offer this elaborate definition: ‘an old-fashioned piece of furniture with a long wooden seat and a high back and arms, often also with a box for storing things below the seat.’ Sounds practical for erotic activities?

A seventeenth-century oak settle

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.  This article carries on where his previous article on the subject left off:  see Puns in Liddell and Scott |