Issue 8 |

Glossary creation

by on September 20, 2016

Glossaries and dictionaries are two things that most of us tend to take for granted. We use them for reference purposes when needed, without giving much or any thought to the people who created them or to the methods that they used. Prior to September 2014, I was no different. But after spending the year that followed creating a glossary of my own, and with very little previous knowledge of the process, my mindset regarding these types of documents has changed completely. They are painstaking to compose, but well worth the effort for both their authors and their users once completed.

Some background

The document from which I created the glossary was a 16th century Spanish translation titled El compendio delos boticarios, or The Apothecaries’ Handbook, of a 15th century Latin apothecaries’ (pharmacists’) manual, Aromatariorum compendium. The author of the original Latin manuscript was Saladino d’Ascoli, an Italian physician, and its translator was Alonso Rodriguez de Tudela. His translation notwithstanding, however, many of the period and technical terms in the Compendio would be unknown to most modern-day readers, even those who are native speakers of Spanish. What’s more, some of these terms are so obscure that they were non-existent in any dictionary or similar resource prior to the composition of a text-specific glossary. Thus, I created the glossary as part of a larger effort to modernize, restore, and edit both the Spanish and Latin versions of the Compendio and to produce an English translation.

Of course, this begs the question of why such documents should be considered important when their contents are no longer particularly relevant by today’s standards. In this case, the answer is three-fold. From a purely linguistic standpoint, the Compendio and its Latin predecessor are valuable due to what they can tell us both about 16th century Spanish and about the evolution of Spanish from Vulgar Latin. In addition, both documents contain multiple references to the contributions of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions alike to the medical field. It is this evidence of intercultural exchange that makes them perhaps most worth studying.

And finally, successful use of the occasional antiquated preparation in a modern-day context is not unheard of. In 2015, for example, a 9th century Anglo-Saxon remedy consisting of leeks, garlic, wine, and cow’s bile salts proved to be 90% effective against MRSA—a “hospital superbug” that causes skin infections. It just might be that one of the Compendio concoctions might prove similarly useful.

The process

In order to create a glossary that was as reliable and complete as possible, I followed a three-step process. Step one? Simply reading through the Compendio, attempting to understand as much of a given section’s content and context as I could. As I came across words or phrases that I didn’t recognize, I searched for them in at least one comprehensive, modern-day Spanish-to-English dictionary. If the word in question existed there, I would know that it had been unfamiliar to me and perhaps rare—but not something that warranted inclusion in the glossary.

I should pause at this point to clarify that the Compendio consists of seven sections, each one covering a different skill set or type of knowledge essential to the apothecary’s craft. They include: possible test questions and their answers (for those training for the profession); the names and descriptions of various compound medicines; weights and measures; recipes for ointments, syrups, and similar preparations; advice on the collection of flowers and plants; advice on the storing of certain substances; and a list of all essential components of an apothecary’s shop.

Step two of this process was to search for the word, provided that Step One had failed to define it, in a more specialized dictionary or similar resource. My first choice was typically María Teresa Herrera’s Diccionario español de textos médicos antiguos, or Dictionary of Old Spanish Medical Texts. For obscure plant names, I also used Dr. Thomas Capuano’s Diccionario herbario. If this step turned up the definition of the word in question, which it did about 70% of the time, I would still include it in my glossary so that readers without access to such specialized resources would be able to find it easily.

Step three, of course, involved that 30% of words whose definitions were not so readily-available. 30% may not sound like a large number, but they demanded 90% of the time required by the project. To define these obscure and often very specific words, I relied on both printed and digitized primary sources. These were documents similar in content to the Compendio and written during the same time period. They included comparable apothecaries’ manuals, midwives’ handbooks, and similar books designed for doctors or other members of the medical community. Many of these documents were in languages other than Spanish; in fact, most were in Latin, but Italian, French, and even English would show up from time to time. Relying on such primary sources, and sometimes assisted by clues from the Compendio itself, I was able to define the words that I had been unable to locate elsewhere.

An example

One example of a word that I took through this entire process is secaniabin. This noun—derived from Arabic with Persian roots that was eventually borrowed by Latin and then Spanish—refers to a medicinal preparation that consisted in its most basic state of vinegar, honey or sugar, and water. This solution was designed to soften or thin viscous bodily substances and humors such as phlegm.

When I first came across this word while reading through the Compendio, I had never seen it before and knew that it was probably borrowed from a language other than Spanish. To verify my suspicion, however, I searched for it in two commonplace modern Spanish dictionaries; it did not exist in either one.

The next step I took was to search for secaniabin using the more specialized sources mentioned earlier. When doing so likewise failed to produce results, I knew that further research would be required in order to discover the word’s meaning. I did this by locating and consulting a variety of primary sources that referenced secaniabin—including material attributed to well-known figures in medical history such as Galen, Nebrija, and Avicenna. I then used the information that they contained in order to piece together the definition that I ended up using in my glossary.

I followed similar steps in defining numerous other words—most of which were either extremely rare foreign borrowings or the highly specialized names of certain medicines. The final result is a 35-page glossary of terms found in the Compendio delos boticarios—including the names of various medicinal plants, compound medicines, metals, rocks and minerals, and ailments that the apothecaries of the day were expected to understand. It is intended as a time-saving resource for readers who are interested in the linguistic, historical, and cultural implications of this apothecaries’ manual.

Working on this project proved to me that glossary-creation is a great deal more than simply looking up certain words and copying down their definitions. While that is certainly the case at times, many entries require significantly more searching, deciphering, decision-making, and effort. But at the end of determining each word’s definition is a tangible contribution to the understanding of the text in question.

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