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A Brief History of the Dictionary

About 4,000 years ago, Babylonian scribes chiseled a set of cuneiform tablets to create a glossary of animals, stones, plants, and star names. Written in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian, the text was titled Urra=hubullu, meaning “interest-bearing loan” in both languages (“urra” is Sumerian, while “hubullu” is Akkadian). The bland title belied the text’s importance: According to some scholars, it was the world’s first dictionary.

The 24 stone tablets (some of which you can visit at the Met and Louvre) described about 9,700 word pairs and were designed to help writers and students translate between the two ancient languages. “The compilers of Urra=hubullu, concerned only with making life easier for scribes, had no grand thoughts of describing their universe,” Jack Lynch writes in his book You Could Look It Up. “They were bureaucrats, not philosophers or poets. And yet they inadvertently left a picture of the universe as they understood it.”

Some critics, however, might argue that the hullabaloo over the Urra=hubullu is overrated: After all, the translation stones don’t resemble any of the modern dictionaries — what are called monolingual dictionaries — we’d recognize today. The same problem is true of one of the next-oldest glossaries, the Shizhoupian, a roughly 2,800-year-old collection of bamboo strips designed to teach up-and-coming scribes how to write Chinese characters.

In fact, one of the first recognizable dictionaries didn’t appear until around the third century BCE, after Chinese scholars assembled the Erya — or “Approaching What Is Proper.” The book sorted Chinese words into 19 categories, explaining the meaning behind the names of plants, trees, and more. Supplemental additions to the Erh-ya later expanded definitions on concrete topics such as “birds” and even abstract concepts like “righteousness.” (Not found in those early works? The word author. Historians remain stumped about who, exactly, wrote these ancient reference books.)

“Disorderly Words” and Other Early Dictionaries

Ionic order pillars , close up
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One of the earliest known dictionary-writers — what professionals call a “lexicographer” — was Philitas of Cos, a Greek poet who compiled a dictionary 2,300 years ago that was titled “Disorderly Words.” (You’ll notice that dictionary names used to be much more creative!) Philitas’s book defined a slew of rare literary words, including many that were found in the epic poems of Homer.

Over the centuries, dictionaries spread. And so, too, did the practice of memorizing them. Sometime around the middle of the first millennium CE, an Indian grammar-lover named Amarasimha wrote the popular “Immortal Dictionary,” called the Amarakosha or the Namalinganushasanam. Both a dictionary and thesaurus, the Sanskrit text was written in verse to aid memorization.

As intellectual life flourished elsewhere, Europeans trudged through the dictionaryless dark ages. But things began to change around the ninth century, when an Irish king-bishop named Cormac mac Cuilennáin released the Sanas Carmaic, a dictionary containing more than 1,000 words in the Irish language. Unfortunately, as a historical text, the book was pretty unreliable: Cuilennáin defined words associated with Ireland’s divine and mythological beings — and treated many of these legends as real.  

Quality reference books would evade European word-lovers for centuries. Around 1604, a schoolteacher named Robert Cawdrey published the first English alphabetic dictionary, called Table Alphabeticall. Cawdrey’s definitions were short and sweet — and, frankly, unhelpful. The word Crocodile was defined simply as “beast.” An Akekorne was defined as a “fruit” while an Abricot was defined as a “a kind of fruite.” Most useless was Cawdrey’s definition of baptist. (“A baptiser,” Cawdrey writes.) Years later, British statesman and diplomat Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, would lament the sorry state of English dictionaries like Cawdrey’s as “a sort of disgrace to our nation.

Indeed, foreign language dictionaries had a stronger track record. In 1286, a preacher named Johannes Balbus had produced The Catholicon, a combination Latin dictionary and encyclopedia that would become one of the first books published on Gutenberg’s printing press. In 1502, the Italian lexicographer Ambrogio Calepino wrote a Latin-Italian dictionary (with other languages added later) that was so influential the word “calepin” was once an English synonym for the word “dictionary.”

By the 17th century, English dictionaries began turning a corner — partially thanks to an epidemic of plagiarism. (A lot of dictionary-makers couldn’t help but steal from one another.) In 1616, John Bullokar would release An English Expositor, a catalogue of “strange words” designed to introduce terms to “the capacitie of the ignorant.” And in 1656, Thomas Blount would publish Glossographia. The first monolingual English dictionary to explore a word’s etymology, Glossographia was also the first to jot down words like coffee, chocolate, and omelette.

Samuel Johnson: “A Harmless Drudge”

Statue of Dr. Samuel Johnson on the Strand
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In 1747, Samuel Johnson outlined his plans to write the English language’s ultimate dictionary: “One great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language,” Johnson wrote.

For the next eight years, Johnson poured his life into creating a work of 42,773 entries. (An impressive feat, considering that the average person only uses about 20,000 words.) He was the first English lexicographer to use quotations to illustrate a word’s meaning — a practice that still continues today — and one of the first to respectfully acknowledge regionalisms, dialects, and other colloquialisms.

Johnson’s dictionary also contained flashes of humor. He defined a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge.” Occasionally, he included his opinions, such as in his definition of luggage: “Anything of more weight than value.” And in some instances, he was plainly prejudiced. (No fan of the French, Johnson omitted words such as champagne and unique and defined finesse as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language.”)

Noah Webster and Beyond

Oxford Dictionary, notebook, laptop, pencils and tea cup on a table.
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Whether Johnson accomplished his goal to fix the English language is debatable. But across the pond, an American lexicographer named Noah Webster would take up the same challenge. At the start of the 19th century, Webster began work on a decades-long project aimed at distancing American English from the conventions Johnson had diligently recorded, and introducing readers to radically new, uniquely American spellings: Color for colour, center for centre, jail for gaol, and more.

Webster also introduced approximately 12,000 words that had never appeared in a dictionary. Some — like skunk, “A fetid animal of the weasel kind” — were American in origin. Others, like hickory, had roots in Native American languages. But not all of Webster’s attempts to improve the language succeeded. American readers rejected Webster’s spellings of soup (soop), women (wimmen), close (cloze), daughter (dawter), and tongue (tung).

By the end of Webster’s project — his magnum opus was the 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language — a new generation of lexicographers were working to create the glossary-to-end-all-glossaries: The Oxford English Dictionary. Taking decades to complete and containing more than 400,000 words, the OED attempted to record every word to have ever graced the English language. A linguistic triumph when completed in 1928, the OED required the work of hundreds of helpers. To this day, it is the English language’s authoritative reference book.

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