The Life History of Latin Words

[from Peter Flury's address given October 10, 1985 in the Kabinet pro studia, Prague. Eduard Wöfflin was one of the founding editors of the ThLL]

Eduard Wöfflin's main interest was what he termed the life history of a 

word (Lebensgeschichte eines Wortes).  According to his formulation 

it should be the task of scholarly lexicography to present the history of a 

word, its struggle with competing words, the change of its meaning, the 

stages of its decline or advancement.  He was not afraid to relate 

philology, focussed on this goal, explicitly to the sphere of the natural 

sciences, especially biology.  And it was consistent with this conception 

of the discipline that he always termed the skill of observation the 

cardinal virtue of lexicographers.  The quality of a dictionary was 

determined not by the number of instances, but by the accuracy and variety 

of observations.  Not only should the first occurrence of a word and its 

various meanings be recorded, but also its eventual disappearance; its 

absence among some authors as well as its peculiar frequency among others.  

To this task belong a detailed outline and analysis of syntactical 

phenomena, as well as a thorough presentation of metaphorical usage and 

stylistic details; also, orthography, prosody and morphology should not be