FOR 32 years, Dr David Howlett has been scouring medieval Latin texts, picking out unusual words and compiling them in one of the world’s most extraordinary dictionaries.
But, if that sounds like a lifetime’s work, it’s just a fraction of the time spent by scholars on a monumental effort to record the definitions of every Latin word used in Britain for more than 1,000 years.
A century after the idea was first floated to the British Academy, experts are only now compiling definitions of words beginning with ‘T’ for the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.
They hope to write the definition for the last word beginning with ‘Z’ in 2014, completing the 50-year project.
Dr Howlett, 67, who will retire when the dictionary’s final volume is published, said: “Sometimes, it has felt like eating a bowl of concrete.
“The task was huge, and has got bigger as we have gone along.
“It is like one’s baby, but it is also more than that. It is a national monument.”
Ten Oxford University academics based in South Parks Road have spent years examining legal documents, court transcripts, letters, literary texts and diplomatic documents to find every conceivable usage of every conceivable word.
A small army of priests, monks and historians first began collecting more than a million quotation slips in 1924, listing documents where unusual words were used.
The first list of words was published 10 years later.
After several revisions, the list was expanded in 1965, when work started in earnest on producing a definitive dictionary.
Latin was the written language of choice for clergy, administrators, courts and diplomats for more than a millennium.
Unlike the rest of Europe, the indigenous English, Welsh and Irish population did not speak Latin-based languages, so only ever used a pure form of Latin learnt from ancient texts after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century.
But after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the language began to change dramatically as words drawn from Old French and dozens of other languages were Latinized.
Dr Howlett, who has edited the dictionary since 1979, said: “The Brits never threw anything away.
“The British Library is huge, and the National Archive is 10 times the size of the British Library.
“Sometimes, we are the first people to read these documents for centuries.”
An $800,000 (£490,000) bequest from the Packard Humanities Institute will mean the entire dictionary will be available for free online when it is completed.