Friday, 8 June 2012

Drudging Harmlessly


                     In addition to encyclopaedias, dictionaries are also arranged alphabetically. It appears to be an eminently sensible method of presenting the words –providing, of course, you can spell the word you are looking for in the first place. This is one of the reasons that dictionaries were originally made; when books were hand-written the spelling followed the orthography known to each particular scribe. With the introduction of printing, it soon became apparent that a standard method of spelling was needed. William Caxton is credited with introducing printing into England in 1476, and although he was basically a translator Caxton put his name to many of the works he produced. 

He noted in the preface to the Eneydos, that some merchants had landed on the Kent side of the Thames and wanted to buy some eggs. The merchant asked for ‘eggys’, but the stallholder told him she could not understand him, as she didn’t speak French. This angered the merchant, as he couldn’t speak French either but still wanted some ‘egges’. The problem was solved when another woman intervened, saying what he wanted was ‘eyren’, and the stallholder then said that she “…vnderstood hym wel”. If confusion existed in the same city, imagine the situation countrywide, with regional variations, dialects and local idiosyncrasies. Learned works were still written in Latin, and the earliest ‘dictionaries’ were word-lists or glossaries, first from Latin to English, then English to Latin. 

Catholicon Anglicum - Entry for 'Thowsande'

One of the earliest was the Catholicon Anglicum, of 1483, and one of the problems can be seen from a glance at it – an entry taken at random shows the word ‘thousand’ is spelled ‘thowsande’. In 1538, Sir Thomas Elyot produced his Workbook, another Latin-English dictionary, but the first monolingual English ‘dictionary’ was Richard Mulcaster’s Elementarie of 1582, although this was merely a word-list without definitions. 

Mulcaster's Elementarie

Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) added definitions to its 3000 listed words, although they are not really all that helpful – a ‘specke’ is ‘a spot, or marke’, a ‘spectacle’ is ‘something to be looked at’, and so on. There followed other dictionaries, but the real break-through came with Dr Samuel Johnson’s two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755).  

Johnson's Dictionary - Title Page

Johnson lists 40,000 words with detailed definitions and cites 140,000 quotations, showing how other writers have used the words. It is a great work, and justly feted, not least as the personality of Johnson shines through his definitions; ‘Lexicographer’ is defined as ‘… a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge’. 

Entry for Lexicographer from Johnson's Dictionary

It is a testament to Johnson’s scholarship that the next real advance in the publication of dictionaries did not come until 1857, when it was decided that a work was needed that included lost and obsolete words, together with new and fashionable words, together with their pronunciation, word families, etymology, their first recorded usage, and how their meanings may have changed through time. The project was agreed on, in principle, and volunteers recruited to provide examples of quotations. After a couple of false starts, James Murray was appointed as editor and worked ceaselessly until his death. The first dictionary fascicle was published in 1884, and work continued until 1928, when the first edition of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, better known (from 1895) as the Oxford English Dictionary, was completed, in ten bound volumes. 

1933 Supplement to the OED - Title Page

A supplement was issued in 1933 and the dictionary republished as thirteen volumes. More supplements followed, and in 1989 a second edition was published in 20 volumes. Work continues, and a third edition is planned for 2037! In 1933 the first edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was published, a two-volume distillation of the larger work, and further editions followed in due course. 


Here is a picture of my two-volume edition from 1993. I won these in a crossword competition in the Independent newspaper – they retailed then for about £90, (the current cost is around £120), so I doubt if I’d ever have been able to afford to buy them.



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