The Grimm Brothers’ Other Great Project Was Writing a Giant German Dictionary

In 1837, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the brothers most well known for their eponymous collection of fairy tales, were kicked out of their home. They had been working as professors at the famous University of Göttingen, Germany, when the King of Hanover, who ruled the area, demanded they and other academics swear an oath of loyalty.

The Grimms, along with five other professors, refused. The “Göttingen Seven” were stripped of their posts, and three of them, including Jacob Grimm, were banished from the state. He and his brother retreated to their hometown, Kassel. All of a sudden, the Brothers Grimm needed a new source of income.

They decided to take up an offer they had previously refused, from a publisher based in Frankfurt. They were to create a dictionary of the German language, a project so massive that by the time Jacob and Wilhelm died (in 1863 and 1859, respectively), they had only completed up through E. When the Deutsches Wörterbuch (The German Dictionary) was finally finished, more than a century later, it became the largest German dictionary ever compiled.

Though the project promised to be massive, the Grimms originally expected the job could be accomplished with four volumes. Even as that number began to expand, Jacob estimated it would take about 10 years to complete what had become a total of seven volumes. They planned to use German literature, from Luther to Goethe, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, to identify the words that should be included.

Quickly, though, the project sprawled in both time and space. The Grimms hired readers to comb through key texts, document word use, cite relevant quotations, and submit words cards for inclusion in dictionary. That work was supposed to take a couple of years, until 1839. Instead the brothers were receiving word submissions through the 1840s, as Kelly Kistner, who studied the dictionary as part of her doctoral work at the University of Washington, writes. The process of alphabetizing the submitted words didn’t begin until 1847.

Read more: Atlas Obscura

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