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A History of The Humble Dictionary

Despite the proliferation of electronic aids to communication and research, a humble dictionary is still a powerful tool in the literary armoury whether it be an online version or in printed form.

The Earliest Dictionaries

The oldest known dictionary is said to date back to around 2,300 BC, was discovered in what is now Syria and took the form of tablets said to illustrate Sumerian and Akkadian (or Mesopotamian) word lists. Many ancient societies from the Babylonians to the Chinese, Japanese, Arab and Indian wrote their own ‘word lists’ in languages now long forgotten including Sumerian and Sanskrit and the very earliest ones featured multilingual lists of words, phrases or characters. The earliest surviving monolingual dictionary, or encyclopaedia as it is sometimes referred to as is the 3rd century BC Chinese Erya. Indeed, Chinese dictionaries are known to date back as far as the Han Dynasty over two millennia ago. The oldest Japanese dictionaries, including the Tenrei Bansho Meigi dating from 835 AD were often written using Chinese characters.

 Arabic dictionaries from the 8th to the 14th centuries AD were written in a form that we could recognise today in modern dictionaries. They were organised initially in rhyme order but later in alphabetical order according to the first letter of the word.

The Middle Ages Onwards

In medieval Europe and in England in the Middle Ages, (up to around the 15th and 16th centuries) language began to change and evolve. In Europe Latin still featured heavily in glossaries and sometimes in the common vernacular according to which population it was aimed at. Glossaries and dictionaries tended to reflect the widespread Christian religion practised across much of Europe; the Catholicon by Johannes Balbus, an Italian priest, and dating to 1287 was widely adopted throughout those Christian societies which still revered Latin as the main working language. This was also one of the earliest printed versions, in 1460. From 1502 onwards the monolingual Latin dictionaries became multilingual to reflect the growing diversity of European languages.

The most well-known and important example of a multilingual dictionary in Britain was ‘The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght’ (sic) a Latin-English dictionary first published in 1538 and again several times throughout the 16th century. Claudius Hollyband’s dictionary of French and English and John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary were produced in 1593 and 1598 respectively.

The English language began to change rapidly from the Middle Ages onwards and according to the OED the number of words available to speakers of the English language doubled between 1500 and 1650. During the Renaissance period new words were introduced which had origins in Latin or Greek, for instance ‘hypotenuse’. As people began to travel more around the world they too brought back with them new words and phrases which for native English speakers must have been difficult to understand or accept. As the world appeared to grow smaller and more accessible so the towns and cities of medieval Britain began to expand and diversify. People gravitated towards cities like London and Birmingham and population numbers increased whilst at the same time becoming increasingly sophisticated in their language and in their reading material, as printed books, newspapers and leaflets began to appear more readily for the perusal of the general population. Education was becoming more important, for boys at least, and the appearance of the first grammar schools precipitated the development of the English dictionary as we know it today.

The First English Dictionaries

English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey wrote the first monolingual, alphabetical English dictionary in 1604. Titled A Table Alphabeticall, a copy still exists at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The book was compiled from earlier publications which were simple wordlists and was considered to be, even 150 years after publication a rather inferior ‘hard-word’ book and not a definitive dictionary. This is because it was said to offer only simple definitions of previously unknown words which had begun to infiltrate the English language. During the 17th century there were several attempts at producing English dictionaries including ‘The New World of English Words’ by Edward Phillips with its more technical and expanded list of words, and John Wilkins’ ‘Essay on Philosophical Language’ in 1668 which offered a new universal language for the purpose of helping communication among international scholars.

The first definitive and reliable modern English language dictionary in a form that we could easily recognise today is Samuel Johnson’s ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ produced in 1755. This was notable for its alphabetical form and easy to understand textual word definitions. For more than 150 years this work was the standard bearer for English dictionaries up until the point that the Oxford University Press began to produce its own version, in short bundles, of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1884. Over the following fifty years it expanded to become twelve volumes of the complete OED. It is still arguably the most reliable and most comprehensive English dictionary and every three months revisions and updates are added as the language continues to evolve.


Types of Dictionary

Throughout the 17th century there existed a healthy ‘slang’ or ‘canting’ version of the English language particularly among the lower orders and in 1676 Elisha Coles published his English Dictionary which was the first to include canting and regional words alongside the standard ‘hard words’. In 1699 the first known English dictionary of slang appeared with the publication of B. E.’s Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew.

In 1806 the first publication of American Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language appeared. Over the following 27 years he compiled the more comprehensive American Dictionary of the English Language, a tome containing 70,000 words and which introduced simplified American spellings of English words.

Today there are several thousand specialised dictionaries covering not only language but also historical or technical matters. Some cover a single field of reference; others deal with several subject fields. Computer language has its own dictionary. Most dictionaries as commonly understood are those which deal with grammar and which offer simple descriptions of words.

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