“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” So writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Studies” (1597). What exactly he means by this three-part aphorism is unclear, so let’s focus just on the middle part: “conference [maketh] a ready man.” We’ll have to determine the meanings of at least two words: ‘conference’ and ‘ready.’
So how might I determine those meanings? Let’s start with ‘conference,’ and try the easy way: Google gives me links to conference centres and the Wikipedia definition: “a meeting of people who ‘confer’ about a topic.” (Your results may differ, but this is for illustrative purposes.) A bit further down I find the Merriam-Webster definitions, whose second entry is “a usually formal interchange of views.” Or the Collins definitions, which compiles standard, British, and American dictionaries: meetings with formal agendas, press conferences, and finally “the act of conversing or consulting on a serious matter.”
That’s the 9th of Collins’ 16 possible meanings, and it feels right.
There’s a better way to do this, requiring just one extra step: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). (Its Wikipedia entry isn’t half bad, ironically.) The extra step is to log in, usually through an institution or library who pays for the subscription. As with most things, you get what you pay for.
Search ‘conference’ in the OED and you get 8 meanings. Number 4a seems right: “The action of conferring or taking counsel, now always on an important or serious subject or affair.” I’ve italicized the latter half because this is what the OED does best: it tells you the historical meaning of a word, and how it’s changed through time. Bacon in 1597 is using ‘conference’ in ways that people used that word in 1597.
Look below each meaning, and you can see in which year the first writer used the word with that meaning. In this case it’s 1555, and as it happens Bacon’s use is the very next one on that list.
But don’t stop there: look at a few other other meanings to see how readers in 1597 might also have interpreted ‘conference.’ Why? Two reasons: because we won’t always have such a direct endorsement of one meaning; and because other meanings add nuances that might help us understand the whole sentence. Look especially at meanings marked ‘obsolete’: if the dates of quotations are near 1597, they shed more light. Meaning 5 is the broader sense of “communication, converse,” so ‘conference’ could also be about any subject whatsoever.
But meaning 3 is more specific: “comparison, esp. of texts.” That has something to do with reading, so we can’t rule it out. Until, that is, we learn what “ready” means.
The word “ready” is so ubiquitous that the standard dictionaries give you multiple meanings. Narrowing them down just to the adjectives, you get “prepared,” “willing,” “needing or wanting,” “available,” “prompt,” and so on. None help us decipher Bacon’s meaning except “prepared.”
Okay. Prepared for what?
There, the OED is once more the place to go. Meaning 4b is “Of a person, a person’s tongue, pen, etc.: quick and lively in speech, discourse, or writing; eloquent.” And wouldn’t you know, Bacon is once more a cited instance of that meaning. (That wasn’t my intention, I swear: but it doesn’t hurt.)
Put them all together and you get this meaning of “conference [maketh] a ready man”: “The action of conferring,” of giving and taking advice, maketh an “eloquent” man.
Oh, one last thing. Look up “man” and you get this helpful headnote:
Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males. It is now frequently understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.
Unfortunately, Bacon didn’t get the memo. See meaning 1: “As a designation applied equally to particular individuals of either sex. Obsolete.” And rightfully so.