The other day, I saw on my Twitter timeline a joke about the invention of the dictionary, proving once more that you really can laugh at everything! I won’t go further on that joke, because I decided to educate myself a little bit on the subject, and, as usual, I’m sharing with you my findings.
When Was The Dictionary Invented?
The concept of dictionaries can be traced back over 4,000 years to ancient civilizations. In Mesopotamia, bilingual glossaries were created around 2300 BCE, serving as valuable translation tools. Similarly, the Chinese Erya, dating back to the third century BCE, encompassed glosses, definitions, and encyclopedic entries, establishing a comprehensive linguistic reference work.
In Europe, Latin glossaries such as the Catholicon and Arabic dictionaries employing different organizational methods emerged during the medieval period.
The development of dictionaries in the English language gained momentum during the early modern period. The expansion of English vocabulary, influenced by trade, travel, and cultural exchange, necessitated tools to explain “hard” or unfamiliar words.
Monolingual dictionaries were preceded, both in Britain and in continental Europe, by bilingual dictionaries, which served a more immediate practical need. Important examples in Britain include The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1538), a Latin-English dictionary that went into several editions throughout the sixteenth century, Claudius Hollyband’s Dictionary French and English (1593), and John Florio‘s Italian-English Worlde of Wordes (1598).
The First Alphabetical English Dictionary
The movement to produce an English dictionary was partly prompted by a desire for wider literacy, so that common people could read Scripture, and partly by a frustration that no regularity in spelling existed in the language. The first purely English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical (1604). It contained around 2,500 words and their definitions, listed in alphabetical order.
Cawdrey explained that his aim was to explain ‘hard usual English wordes’, and went on to include words that were ‘verie hard and strange’. The 2,500 entries include curiosities such as ‘abomination’, ‘dangerous’, and ‘disdaine’. His definitions were limited to single-word explanations.
The tradition of the ‘hard word’ dictionaries was continued after Cawdrey by John Bullokar‘s English Expositor (1616), Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary (1623), and Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656).
In the late seventeenth century, Elisha Coles’s English Dictionary (1676) exemplified a shift towards more extensive wordlists, encompassing not only hard words but also regional terms, slang, and everyday language. The interest in slang culminated in the publication of B. E.’s Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), regarded as the first English dictionary of slang.
The Dictionary Grows Big
Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) marked a significant milestone as Johnson undertook the most ambitious English dictionary of that time, a list of 42,773 words. It became a model for future dictionaries and solidified Johnson’s status as a lexicographical pioneer.
In America, Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary (1806) preceded his monumental work, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which included 70,000 entries and surpassed Johnson’s dictionary in scope and authority. Webster’s dictionary reflected the evolving American English and the desire for a distinct national identity.
Initiated in the late nineteenth century, The Oxford English Dictionary aimed to document the entire English language, emphasizing historical usage.
A dictionary was always a physical item until the twentieth century, whether written in stone or printed on paper. Things have changed dramatically since then. Because of technological advancements, dictionaries are now available as electronic data that may be accessed in a variety of ways (meaning mostly online).
Now that we covered the early history of the dictionary, I can only recommend reading my article about the invention of the newspaper.