History of Dictionaries

by Svetlana Grobman, CPL Reference Librarian

Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

"Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words” ~ from Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” (1755)

Oct. 16 is the birthday of Noah Webster, American teacher and lexicographer. It has also been designated Dictionary Day — an occasion to encourage everyone to use dictionaries regularly. Today, we can hardly imagine reading and writing without dictionaries. Yet, at the time of Shakespeare, English — the language of a small island nation with about 6 million inhabitants — had no standard spelling, grammar or pronunciation.

The task of setting up standards for the English tongue fell to a critic, biographer and poet Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). When Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” was published (1755), it listed about 43,500 words illustrated by 118,000 quotations. Although not the first dictionary of English, Johnson’s work helped stabilize English, and it also gave dictionaries the authority they enjoy today. For his achievement, Johnson, who had never finished college, was given a Master of Arts degree from the University of Oxford — just in time to be displayed on the title page of his dictionary.

In 1791, James Boswell, Johnson’s contemporary and an admirer, published Johnson’s first major biography, “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” and numerous scholars have been following suit ever since. Many things about Johnson stand out. He knew poverty, and he was plagued with afflictions: blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, and a sufferer of Tourette’s syndrome. Famous author and lexicographer, Johnson also is the most quoted English speaker after William Shakespeare. His wit and quips are still legendary. He deemed a second marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience,” patriotism as “the last refuge of scoundrels,” and his comments about poverty were “a decent pension for the poor is the true test of civilization.” Recent Johnson biographies include Peter Martin’s “Samuel Johnson: A Biography" (Harvard University, 2008) and Jeffrey Meyers’ “Samuel Johnson: The Struggle" (Basic Books, 2008). As for Johnson’s dictionary, Henry Hitchings presents its “biography" in "Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005).

In the United States, dictionaries were first imported from England. The first dictionary that included “new words, peculiar to the United States” was published in 1800. It was criticized because linguists of that time considered American English “barbarous.” Despite that, Webster (1758-1843) set out to produce American standards of good usage. His masterpiece, “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” which listed 70,000 words, was published in 1828. Webster believed that spelling, grammar and usage should be based on the living language rather than arbitrary decisions. He adopted systematic, simplified spellings (“color” for “colour,” “music” for “musick,” etc.), and his dictionaries — a Declaration of Independence for American English — account for most of the differences between British and U.S. spelling.

Nowadays, the name Webster — no longer copyright protected — has become synonymous with English dictionaries in the United States, and it has been used by different publishers to add authority to their products. “Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English”" (Free Press, 2008) is an amusing account of the crusty character who did the most to “fix” American English.

Our national obsession with “correct” spelling also began with Webster, whose spelling books sold more than 80 million copies during the 19th century. This obsession still lingers with us today as we celebrate the latest winner of our national spelling bee. James Maguire portrays the unique culture surrounding these events in “American Bee: The National Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds” (Rodale, 2006).

The crowning achievement of lexicography, “The Oxford English Dictionary,” was published in England in 1933. It is a historical dictionary of the English-speaking world, from North America to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to the Caribbean. A story of two men whose lives intertwined during the creation of the OED is told by Simon Winchester in “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

As much as we respect dictionaries’ authority, very few of us would read them for pleasure, yet at least two people have done just that. Read about their funny and profound experiences in “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” (Penguin, 2008) by Ammon Shea and in “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” (Simon and Shuster, 2004) by A.J. Jacobs.

Also, those who like learning about words and the English Language will enjoy Roy Blount’s entertaining and informative “Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s witty and educational “Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language” (Random House, 2009) and John McWhorter’s refreshingly enthusiastic “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English” (Gotham Books, 2008 ).

Today, English is spoken by about 700 million people all over the world, and a variety of dictionaries serve their needs. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11 Edition contains approximately 165,000 entries, and, in 2009, it added about 100 more. Among the additions are words about the environment (carbon footprint, green-collar), government activities (earmark, waterboarding), health and medicine (cardioprotective, locavore), online activities (vlog, wiki), and the state of the economy (staycation). By recording these new words, dictionaries reflect changes in our lives and our ever-fluid language. They also preserve today’s new words for posterity, just as they have since their beginning, for our language never stops changing. As Samuel Johnson said, “Language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.”

Copyright © 2014 Daniel Boone Regional Library