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Chapter 18 - Dictionaries

from Part III - Contexts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Jack Lynch
Affiliation:
Rutgers University, New Jersey
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Summary

Di′ctionary. n.s. [dictionarium, Latin.] A book containing the words of any language in alphabetical order, with explanations of their meaning; a lexicon; a vocabulary; a word-book.

An army, or a parliament, is a collection of men; a dictionary, or nomenclature, is a collection of words. Watts.

By the eighteenth century the monolingual English dictionary, alphabetically organized and equipped with some form of definition for the words which it contained, was, as the lexicographer Benjamin Martin confirms, already a familiar work of reference:

It is customary among all People to make an orderly Arrangement of all the Letters used in their Language, which we call by the Greek name Alphabet; as also of all the Words and Terms which compose the same: And such a Collection or Catalogue of Words is by Us called a Dictionary.

As Johnson commented, this was in many ways to be an “age of dictionaries” (Letters, 1:79), characterized by both abundance and diversity. Small dictionaries “fit for the pocket” vied with larger multivolume works for a share of the public’s attention. Dictionaries were written for school and home, for incidental reference or systematic self-improvement, and offered information on a variety of heads. When Johnson began composing his own dictionary in 1746, Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary already contained 42,000 word entries. A new edition of Bailey appeared in 1755, containing some 65,000 words and actively competing with Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, which had been published in April of that year.

Earlier English dictionaries

While Johnson is popularly described as the “father of the dictionary,” the reality was therefore rather different. The monolingual English dictionary can be traced to 1604, with the publication of Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall, aimed at “unskilful readers” and containing roughly 2,500 “hard, usual words” such as bankerupt and rapacitie. Nevertheless, as Johnson argued in his Plan of a Dictionaryof the English Language (1747), “a very miscellaneous idea” had so far seemed to characterize English lexicography (Works, 18:30). The image of the dictionary as a remedy for educational deficits of particular kinds – able in particular to democratize the kind of polysyllabic and Latinate vocabulary which marked the classically educated “gentleman” – remained popular. The Glossographia Anglicana Nova: Interpreting Such Hard Words of Whatever Language, as Are at Present Used in the English Tongue (1707) therefore stressed its utility to those who could find themselves “not able to read a good Historian, or any Polite English Writer without an Interpreter.” Thomas Dyche and William Pardon likewise stressed the value of their own New General English Dictionary (1735) for the “Improvement of such as are Unacquainted with the Learned Languages.” “Hard words” had pride of place in most early English dictionaries, and familiar words and meanings were often neglected.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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  • Dictionaries
  • Edited by Jack Lynch, Rutgers University, New Jersey
  • Book: Samuel Johnson in Context
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139047852.024
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  • Dictionaries
  • Edited by Jack Lynch, Rutgers University, New Jersey
  • Book: Samuel Johnson in Context
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139047852.024
Available formats
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  • Dictionaries
  • Edited by Jack Lynch, Rutgers University, New Jersey
  • Book: Samuel Johnson in Context
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139047852.024
Available formats
×