A brief history of the English Dictionary. By Geoff Mills
In the years following the eleventh-century Norman Conquest of England the English language went into hiding. The languages of the new elite chased it out of the palaces, the courts and the churches and beat it into ignominious retreat. It had no choice: it fled into the vernacular spaces of the common man - the taverns, the fields, the kitchen hearth. And yet English proved to be a hardy and wily beast. It survived its years of hardship only to re-emerge three hundred years later - admittedly a little shaky and battered at first - re-orient itself and then evolve over time into one of the most promiscuous and fecund forces on the planet. It grew to become an untamed beast, a roaming, omnivorous creature that gorged its guts on the languages of the world.
The English language sprawled its voluminous bulk across the British Empire and bellowed out its insatiable demand for new fodder to feast on. Come the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and writers and intellectuals were revelling in the limitless possibilities the language had to offer. They became frontier men, pushing out and cultivating new linguistic territory, coining new words and expressions at an alarming pace. When the Age of Reason arrived, however, it was this very wildness, hitherto the cause of celebration, which came to be seen as the threat. Men of the Enlightenment were obsessed by order and clarity: the need to marshal and categorise. They lamented the fact that the English language was a bulging, amorphous lump. It possessed an unstable and unpredictable character and did not behave according to neat or immutable laws like gravity or natural selection, for example. The transmutation of language over time meant that even an acknowledged lord of language like Chaucer required specialist training to read and understand. What did this mean, then, for men of genius who wished to be understood by their ancestors?
Jonathan Swift fretted that his own brilliant light would fail to illuminate the minds of future readers: 'How then shall any Man who hath a genius for History equal to the best of the Ancients be able to undertake such a Work with Spirit and Chearfulness, when he considers, that he will be read with Pleasure but a very few Years, and in an Age or two shall hardly be understood without an Interpreter?' Along with others he believed that, as with the French and Italians languages, what was needed was an academy to help 'fix', or stabilize the language. This would ensure that the constant flux of language would not wash away the meaning of those whose genius was etched in writing.
A frail attempt to do this had been made many years before in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey in a slim dictionary he called The Table Alphabeticall. This was the first decent effort at an English dictionary, although it didn't try to provide a comprehensive record of all the words in the English language, merely offer a brief explanation of the more difficult words, many of which were of Latinate origin. In total there are only two thousand five hundred and forty-three words in The Table Alphabeticall which appeared, incidentally, eight years before the first Italian dictionary and thirty-five years before the first French. Not so proud a boast, however, when you consider that it was published some eight hundred years of the first Arabic dictionary and almost a thousand years after the first Sanskrit one.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Rising to Swift's challenge to tame the language, over a century and a half later than Cawdrey, was a man of vast stature, both physical and intellectual. Samuel Johnson was an eccentric, shambling figure in possession of a formidable quantity of wit and learning. It was he who decided to take on this intimidating undertaking, assisted only by a tiny team of underlings. He went about the task after his own inimitable fashion. What had taken a large team of men fifty-five years plus another eighteen years to revise in France, took Samuel Johnson in England only seven years. The result was published in two volumes in 1755, a work which defined forty-three thousand words using supporting quotations from only the 'best writers'. He assembled it with the intention of producing an authoritative record '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'.
The idiosyncratic rules by which he compiled the dictionary are the source of some bafflement. He omitted 'all words which have relation to proper names', a great deal of foreign words he believed had served only to pollute the language, a good number of compound nouns, specialist terms, participles and other words to which he simply admitted 'I cannot explain, because I do not understand them'. He also omitted words he did not like, though in common usage, because they belonged to the working man and were used only casually or for some 'temporary or local convenience'. Johnson, it seems, had elected himself a supreme arbiter of the language, prejudicing the words he thought worthy of inclusion, ruthlessly culling those he didn't. Rude words were also excluded, prompting such dictionaries as Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue to come into existence. Despite its capricious, idiosyncratic nature the dictionary carried a lot of weight and was the source of infinite pride among the English. Johnson became a celebrity and secured his place in the pantheon of British greats.
A reading of Johnson's dictionary proves to be a surprisingly entertaining affair. That it is the product not of a learned committee but of one man with decided views and an intriguing personality becomes rather quickly obvious when certain definitions are extrapolated. Here, for example, his ante-French prejudices become immediately apparent:
Ruse: cunning; artifice; little stratagem; trick; wile; fraud; deceit. A French word neither elegant nor necessary.
Neither, it would seem, does he respect the Scots overmuch:
Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Johnson betrays his fallibility to unintended humorous effect:
Tarantula: an insect whose bite is only cured by musick.
His deprecating humour, as well as his attitude towards the lexicographical task before him, also comes through:
Dull: not exhilarating, not delightful: as in to make dictionaries is dull work.
At times, in rather unscholarly fashion, he simply admits to not knowing; or is so sketchy as to seem wilfully dismissive:
Etch: a country word of which I know not the meaning.
Parsnep: a plant
Pastern: the knee of a horse.
Once, when a lady asked him how these inaccuracies had come to be included in the dictionary, he replied: 'Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.'
Although he may have set out to confer stability on the English language, Johnson soon realised the foolishness of his ambition. His wrongheaded notion that language could be controlled by a central authority is subjected to a certain element of self-mockery in his preface to the great dictionary:
"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."
In other words, language will not suffer to be mastered over by man; it is its own master and itself a master of men. As for Swift - he needn't have worried. For Gulliver's Travels has entered the collective imagination, and we can read his classic now with as every bit the same relish as the eighteenth century reader.
Johnson's dictionary held sway in England for over a hundred and fifty years, although it was not without its detractors. Over in the New World, for example, Noah Webster believed Johnson had served to increase, not reduce as intended, 'the number of corruptions in the English Language', and indeed he had a point. Johnson's prejudice for the classic over the vernacular led him to eschew the common language of man and champion words such as 'denominable', 'discubitory' and 'ariolation' - words which, thank goodness, have long since fallen out of use. But then Webster had always valued the simple over the complex, and was hugely influential in shaping the way Americans spell and pronounce English words today. In its first hundred years his little book American Spelling Book sold sixty million copies, outstripping the sales of every other book published in America bar the Bible. He applied logic to spelling, and in his fervour to effect a spelling reformation simply eliminated those letters he regarded as unnecessary or confusing. Why the 'u' in colour? he reasoned, and so we get the American spelling 'color'. Why the double 'g' in waggon? he vexed, and so they ended up pushing a 'wagon'. Why the 'gh' in plough? he cried querulously, and so farmers ended up working the 'plow'. Why the 're' in 'theatre'? he cried, and so he inverted the order to produce 'theatre'. And so it went on. Webster's great American dictionary of 1828 rehashed Old English spellings into new, easier forms, thus establishing the basis for modern American spelling.
The Birth of the OED
By the nineteenth century Johnson's dictionary was no longer the up-to-date reference tool it once was, and the replacement dictionaries in circulation were not up to scratch. In 1857 the London based Philological Society set up an 'Unregistered Words Committee' in a bid to make up for the lamentable shortcomings it perceived as existing in dictionaries of that time. The nature of their project shifted and they soon set their sights on producing a truly comprehensive dictionary. The society enlisted volunteer readers who were assigned books from which quotations illustrating how certain words were used were drawn. These were then systematically organised by the editor to establish what headwords and definitions would eventually be entered. Overall two tonnes of quotation slips were organised into pigeon holes, but it was not until twenty years after the project was first conceived that the Oxford University Press agreed to publish the projected dictionary. Intriguingly, one of the most active editors was a W. C. Minor, a Yale University trained surgeon and military officer - a convicted murderer who did his work from the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
Compiling the dictionary was slow and painstaking work, and it was published periodically in short sections, or fascicles as they are technically known. But it wasn't until 1928 that the full dictionary was published. Johnson's legacy of using quotes from respected literary figures still held. Sir Thomas Browne, for example, is the most frequently quoted source of neologisms, whereas Shakespeare - somewhat predictably - is the most quoted writer. Hamlet is the most quoted single work and the various translations of the Bible the most quoted collection of works.
The dictionary was left fallow for another twenty years until, once again, changes in the language demanded that further work be done to update the lexicographical records. Several supplements to the 1928 dictionary were added and eventually amalgamated, this time in electronic form, and the new updated OED2 was published in twenty volumes in 1989. Its arrival was hailed in fervent terms. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, described it as 'the greatest publishing event of the century', TIME magazine as a 'scholarly Everest' and the journalist Richard Boston as 'one of the wonders of the world'. In keeping with advances in technology, the OED2 is now available online, and is updated every three months, so that developments to the dictionary can be tracked almost as they happen. The projected new edition, or the OED3 as it is referred to, is to represent a complete overhaul of the dictionary as it appeared in its second incarnation. This is a massive project requiring the work of over 300 specialist personnel and is likely to cost in excess of fifty five million dollars. It is expected to be over twice the length of the OED2 and in breaking with tradition will draw not only from literary sources but also cookbooks, wills, rock lyrics and specialist journals. The estimated completion date is 2037. One of the remarkable achievements of the OED is its breadth and range. It seeks to record not only how the language is used within the UK now, but how it has been used across the English speaking world over the centuries. It offers a historical record as well as a contemporary one, and so offers a survey both telescopic and microscopic in nature.
The debate still raging is that of the dictionaries' raison d'Ítre. Should a dictionary strive to prescribe how language is used? Or should the purpose of the dictionary be merely to describe how language is handled? In this way it would seek not to influence but mirror the linguistic status quo. Most dictionaries adopt the descriptivist approach, the OED among them. Consequently it is reliant upon the work of both paid and voluntary readers - spies on the ground - who scour the terrain for new and unusual word usages and submit written examples for further investigation. The OED receive and sift through around 200, 000 quotations a year, from which the new entries are drawn. In this manner did such recognisable coinings as 'Google', 'earworm' and 'Gaydar' audition for entry into the hallowed covers of the dictionary, although the immense length of the projected OED3 may prevent it from ever making it into traditional print form again. For just as we are unable to predict the future landscape of our language, so can we only speculate what form the repository of this information is likely to take.
Geoff Mills is a teacher of both EFl and English as a first language. He has published articles, reviews and fiction. Please visit: www.geoffmills.com to read more