The British Empire through the eyes of lexicography

Seminar Paper, 2003

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The calm before the storm

3. What is an empire

4. The colony

5. Colonialism From colonialism to imperialism

6. Concluding remarks

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper is the attempt to combine the fascinating fields of cultural studies and linguistics with the following question in mind: How do contemporary monolingual English dictionaries deal with and define terms such as colony, colonialism, empire and imperialism? – concepts that we inevitably associate with the British Empire.

Thousands of books and articles have been written on Britain’s colonial past. Therefore, it is not my design to discover something unexplored or to present new theories but to scrutinise the way lexicographers handle ‘imperial’ vocabulary. To this end, a number of dictionary entries had been analysed for their wording and accessibility. It should be noted that this paper was written on the basis of predominantly general, non-technical references, hoping to make different lines of thinking easier.

2. The calm before the storm

In 1582, Richard Mulcaster wrote in his The First Part of the Elementarie: ‘It [The English tongue] is of small reatch, it stretcheth no further then this Iland of ours, naie not there ouer all … our state is no Empire to hope to enlarge it by commanding ouer cuntries …’ (Viereck 2002: 151). At that time in history, hardly anyone thought of an empire which would one day span around the globe and bear the name ‘British Empire’. Consequently, nobody could foresee the triumphal march of the English language.

I wonder how people in England, be it nobleman or farmer, would have reacted 400 years ago if they had known that their country would become a superpower and control large parts of the world. It would be naïve to suppose that no one knew of the existence of former empires. This was no secret. There was, for example, the Persian Empire stretching from the Balkan Peninsula and Egypt to India; the Romans ruled over many countries in Europe (including England), northern Africa and western Asia; and the Mongol Empire covered much of central Asia. Even though there is one fact that people seemed to ignore – namely that all empires were doomed to failure – someone or other could not help wondering if it was justified to create a new Empire. A British one.

This brings us to the question of what an empire, seen in the light of history, actually is.

3. What is an empire

In the above-mentioned quotation from 1582, Mulcaster already makes use of the term ‘empire’. In those days, the word had been in existence for slightly more than three centuries. Etymologically, the term empire derives from Latin imperium and is related to the verb imperare which means to command (COD). It has entered the English language via Old French in 1200-1300. Today the word empire is also used in other walks of life: we speak of a publishing empire, a media empire, or a business empire.

Now some definitions from various kinds of (non-technical) dictionaries will be scrutinized, starting with the more general and concluding with the more detailed explanation.

The shortest and simplest definition can be found in the BBC English Dictionary: (1) ‘An empire is a group of countries controlled by one country. … the Roman Empire’. According to this concise description, a chart would look like as fallows (c stands for country).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In this definition, country, group and control are the keywords: One country has control over a group of countries. It is important to emphasise that we must speak of countries, not of regions, areas or territories. Take, for example, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. Politically, but not geographically, they belong to the Kingdom of Denmark. So, in a way, Denmark controls these islands. Bud nobody would call Denmark an empire – for the simple reason that Greenland (once a Norwegian colony) and the Faeroes are no countries although they both have their own government. We can conclude that one country alone is no empire, no matter how large its territory is. Russia, for example, is no empire – despite its vastness.

As brevity automatically leads to incompleteness, the above-quoted definition gives rise to the following two questions: What is the number of countries one state must have control over to be called an empire? Does the size of the territory play a role? In short, when is an empire an empire? According to dictionary definitions, an empire is

- (2) ‘a group of countries that are all controlled by one ruler or government’ (DCE),
- (3) ‘ … a number of individual nations that are all controlled by the government or ruler of one particular country (ELD),
- (4) ‘an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, esp. an emperor or empress’ (COD).

Unfortunately, none of these definitions differ markedly from the first one. In (2) ruler and government stand for country. In (3) the number of individual nations is not states precisely. So we still do not know if there must be a minimum amount of dominions. The fourth explanation gives us a slightly better understanding: the number of states has to be extensive.

Hence, if Great Britain had ruled over two countries only, say, Canada and India, then would it not be justified to regard Great Britain as an empire because of its expanse? It seems that, apart from the number of countries, the size of the controlled territory must play the decisive role when we want to speak of an empire. My assumption is partly confirmed by the fifth definition according to which an empire is

§ ‘a major political unit with a great extent of territory or a number of territories or peoples under one sovereign authority; esp. one having an emperor as chief of state’ (Webster).

Let us presume Great Britain had reigned over the tiny island states in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans only, i.e. countries comprising a ridiculously small territory, we could, according to the definition, nevertheless call it an empire because a number of peoples would have been controlled by the British.

Providing an exact and scientifically correct explanation for the term ‘empire’ from a limited selection of dictionary entries is virtually impossible. A final brief definition shall therefore conclude this chapter. In my view, an empire is ‘a vast area consisting of several countries governed by one sovereign’. What we have also learnt from the five (non-scientific) dictionary entries is that we cannot name an exact number of states or peoples to call a country an empire.

But one thing is for sure: before an empire can be created, colonies must be established. It is doubtful that countries would submit to foreign rule voluntarily – even if it was profitable for both sides, because to subjugate means to obey.

So what is a colony? Again, we start with the simplest and move on to the more extensive definition.

4. The colony

Let us go back to the ‘roots’ of the word colony because its etymology is something highly interesting. Amazingly, the word used to be quite ‘harmless’ – without any negative connotations. Colony derives from the Latin verb colere and means to ‘develop a new place an prepare it for crops’ (DCE). So the noun colony is in some way related to the verb to cultivate. This is something mankind has been doing for ten thousands of years.

As for the semantics of colony, according to the Elementary Dictionary of the English Language, a colony is (1) ‘a country that depends on a more powerful country, and is partly controlled by it: Gibraltar became a British colony in 1713 ’.


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The British Empire through the eyes of lexicography
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Institut für fremdsprachliche Philologien)
The British Empire
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British, Empire, British, Empire
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Steffen Laaß (Author), 2003, The British Empire through the eyes of lexicography, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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