"No lawful standard...": The Evolution of English Dictionaries


The earliest dictionary-like tools in English are the Old English glosses, such as one finds in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Old English "glosses" written above or beside the Latin text of the Gospels to allow Anglo-Saxon readers easier access to the Latin text (just as students today might annotate a text of Shakespeare or a foreign-language text). Sources like the Lindisfarne Gospels were invaluable for the recovery of Old English by antiquarians.

Dictionaries of Hard Words

As early as 1582, in the Elementarie (a list of about 8,000 English words, but with no definitions), Richard Mulcaster had called for a dictionary which would provide "besides the right writing, which is incident to the Alphabete, wold open vnto us therein, both their naturall force, and their proper use." But not until 150 years later, in Nathaniel Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), did anyone try to list all the words in the language. The earliest English dictionaries were not dictionaries at all in the modern sense, but rather lists of Latin words and their English equivalents or lists of "hard words" in English.

By end of 16th century, the listing of words in alphabetical order had been established in Latin-English dictionaries, and this principle was adopted by makers of English dictionaries. Some landmarks in early English lexicography (dictionary-making) are:

  • Edmund Coote, The English Schoolmaster, 1596
    • a list of hard English words with simple definitions
  • Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, 1589
    • a Latin-English dictionary, based on Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae
  • Robert Cawdrey, The Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words,1604
    • Cawdrey was a schoolmaster (like Bullokar, Mulcaster, and Coote) who had to come to grips with problems of spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of English words. Today, Cawdrey's Table would be regarded as a plagiarized version of Coote's English Schoolmaster, but Cawdrey had nearly twice as many words in his work and had expanded about half of the definitions borrowed from Coote with information from other sources, such as Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique and Thomas's Latin -English dictionary, from which he derived definitions for Latin borrowings from English definitions of a Latin word. Cawdrey's title page identifies his intentions and audience (see Barber 106-7; Starnes & Noyes 13):
      • A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French. &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit and help of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or an other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in Scriptures, Sermons, or elswhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.
  • John Bullokar, An English Expositor, 1616
    • Twice as many entries as Cawdrey, still with a focus on hard words
  • Henry Cockeram, The English Dictionary, 1623
    • The first to call itself an English Dictionary, but still in the hard word tradition
    • Indebted to Cawdrey, Bullokar, and Thomas.
    • Extends scope of dict. by adding lists of Gods, plants, trees, etc. (an "encyclopedic" feature)
  • Thomas Blount, Glossographia, 1656
    • Intends his text to be useful not only to "the more-knowing women and the less-knowing men" and the unlearned, but also to the "best of scholars" and "to all such as desire to understand what they read."
    • Greatest debt owed to Thomas and a work by Francis Holyoke, Dictionarium Etymologicum
    • May have introduced words into the language which were not already in use
    • First English lexicographer to attempt etymology ("true meaning of a word according to its origin: fr. Greek etymos "true")
  • Edward Phillips (a nephew of John Milton), The New World of English Words, 1658
    • Approximately 11,000 entries
    • Drew on Bullokar, Cockeram, Blount, and others. Disparages Blount, probably to conceal his debt to him. In 1673, Blount published A World of Errors Discovered in the New World of Words, or General English Dictionary, and Nomothets, or Interpreter of Law-Words and Terms in which he exposes Phillips' wholesale theft
  • Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, 1676
    • Copies a great deal from Phillips
    • 25,000 words

Between 10-12,000 new words were introduced during the Renaissance, about half of which have become permanent part of English language.

Development of an Authoritative Dictionary

In 1730, Nathaniel Bailey produced his Dictionarium Britannicum. It encompassed 48,000 words and became the standard English dictionary until Samuel Johnson, using Bailey's work as a foundation, produced A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Johnson conceived his plan for the dictionary with the notion of "fixing" the language. In his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (1747), addressed to "the Right Honourable Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield," he states:
This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary, a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.

In the end, he settled for less.

In the Preface to his Dictionary he concludes:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation with neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

Although Johnson is frequently accorded the credit for being the first to devide and number a lexical item's various senses, the practice can be found in use in Benjamin Martin's Lingua Britannica Reformata of 1749 and in earlier bilingual dictionaries. Whatever else Johnson's Dictionary might have been, it was unquestionably suited to the needs and tastes of his time and his society, and it was the first to be referred to as "The Dictionary."

Johnson expresses his sense of the lexicographer's (sometimes contradictory) duties in his Preface:

Every language has its anomolies, which, though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human beings, and which require only to be registred, that they may not be increased and ascertained, that they may not be confounded: but every language likewise has its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.

Some have complained that Johnson allowed too much of his own personality to intrude into his definitions, but the examples usually cited are rather exceptional:

nowise -- This is commonly spoken and written by ingorant barbarians, noways."
As George Campbell (Philosophy of Rhetoric 1776) later noted, "These ignorant barbarians…are only Pope, and Swift, and Addison, and Locke, and several others of our most celebrated writers."
excise -- a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.
lexicographer -- A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
oats -- A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Whigs -- the name of a faction.

One of the more remarkable features of Johnson's dictionary project was his relationship to Lord Chesterfield, who promised patronage but delivered only verbal allegiance:

I had long lamented, that we had no lawful standard of our language set up, for those to repair to, who might choose to speak and write it grammatically and correctly . . . . The time for discrimination seems to be now come. Toleration, adoption, and naturalization, have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary. But where shall we find them, and at the same time the obedience due to them? We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and choose a Dictator. Upon this principle, I give my vote for Mr. Johnson to fill that great and arduous post. And I hereby declare that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language, as a freeborn British subject, so the said Mr. Johnson, during the term of his dictatorship. Nay, more; I will not only obey him, like an old Roman, as my dictator, but, like a modern Roman, I will implicitly believe in him as my pope, and hold him to be infallible while in the chair; but no longer. (The World. November 28, 1754; quoted in Finegan 23)

Johnson's Dictionary was an important touchstone for Noah Webster in his development of An American Dictionary of the English Language.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary (which began life as the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles), took 46 years to complete. The need for better dictionary begins to become apparent around the middle of 19th century. In 1857, spurred to action by Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster, the Philological Society decided that rather than appoint a committee to collect words not listed in existing dictionaries with intention of publishing a supplement to Johnson and his competitors, that an entirely new dictionary was needed. Trench had read two papers to the Society under the rubric "Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries." These papers contained an expostion of a plan for a dictionary based on historical principles. The Society passed resolutions in January 1858 calling for a new dictionary, and in 1859 issued a "Proposal for the Publication of a New English Dictionary by the Philological Society."

The two primary aims of the Society were to record every word attested in English from about the year 1000 and to illustrate the history of each word through the use of illustrative quotations. To collect the data, the Society solicited volunteer readers to comb texts and send in their gleanings, on slips. Some 6 million slips were collected in all. The Early English Text Society was founded by Frederick J. Furnivall in 1864 to edit texts of medieval manuscripts in order to make the data they contained available to the volunteers.

Herbert Coleridge appointed as the first editor of the OED in 1859, but he died at age 31 in 1861. He was succeeded by Furnivall, then 36, but Furnivall had too many other interests to do a proper job. James A. H. Murray entered the project and in 1879, a contract was drawn up with Oxford University Press for the financing and publication of the dictionary with Murray as Editor. He died in 1915, reportedly in the midst of working on the letters T and U: he had just finished the section Trink to Turndown.

In 1884 the first installment of the dictionary, consisting of part of the letter A, was published in fascicle form. By 1900, four-and-a-half volumes, up to letter H, had appeared. Great delays resulted in final installment's not being published until 1928, 70 years after the Philological Society's resolution was passed.

The job had, of course, been too much for one man, and in 1887 Henry Bradley had joined the staff. Bradley later became co-editor, and still later, on Murray's death, became chief editor. He died in 1923. William Craigie, who had joined the staff in 1897, and became the third editor in 1901. In 1914, Charles T. Onions became fourth editor. Murray and Craigie were knighted for their contributions.

The completed first edition was contained in 10 volumes (later reissued in twelve volumes), totaling 15,487 pages, in three columns, with 240,165 main words. The first supplement was published in 1933. Three new volumes of supplementary material were issued between 1972 and 1984 (100 years after the publication of the letter A). In 1989, a second edition, edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, was published, filling 22,000 pages in twenty volumes.

In 1992 a CD-ROM edition of the work was published, and an online edition is planned for publication in October 1999. At present, the entire dictionary is being updated for the first time since the work of the early editors, with a planned completion date for this third edition of 2010. Further information is available at the Oxford University Press Website: http://www.oed.com/inside/. Available on campus (Virginia Tech Library; if off campus use the Off Campus Sign-in) at http://dictionary.oed.com/entrance.dtl

Dictionaries in America