by Doug Hubley

Working for three years as a lexicographer for the University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary project, Elaine Tuttle Hansen came in midway through the letter M and stayed through P. “I worked on some terrific words in the M’s and N’s,” she says with a smile.

Intended as a comprehensive resource of the English language circa 1100 to 1500, the dictionary was begun in 1930. The project’s first 15 years were devoted to reading piles of original texts to glean headwords and quotations illustrating their use. These citations were transcribed onto sheets of paper — some three million in all.

By 1975, when Hansen and six other young Ph.D.s joined the project, the process of creating dictionary entries from the citation sheets was well-established. Using purpose-built wooden “sorting boards,” the lexicographers put the sheets into a logical order. Then they returned to the original texts to track down the citations and develop their definitions.

“For three years I read in every known Middle English text,” Hansen says. “I just read everything, from the rolls of Parliament to obscure medical texts to the great works of literature written between 1100 and 1500.”

The dictionary gave her a valuable credential in Middle English, the language of Chaucer. “It’s why I ended up teaching what I taught,” she says, “because I was able to get one of those Chaucer jobs that otherwise I wouldn’t have been prepared for.”

She adds, “It was a very time-consuming and laborious process — a lot of fun for about four hours a day. But we were there from 9 to 5.”

The dictionary was completed last year, totaling 13 volumes, some 15,000 pages, 55,000 separate entries, and more than 900,000 supporting quotations.