I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Refined Reader (13) The History of the Dictionary

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

The term "dictionary" was first coined in 1220 by John of Garland who wrote a book on Latin diction he called Dictionarius.  But the dictionary - a collection of word definitions - was around way before then.  Cuneiform tablets with Sumerian-Akkadian word lists date from around 2300 B.C. while a Chinese dictionary dates from the 3rd century B.C. and an Arabic dictionary was compiled in the 8th century A.D.  Language dictionaries were around in Medieval times for Latin and Greek translations.  Early dictionaries were often ordered by topic, by rhyme (the sound of the last syllable) or by the root word.

The dictionary was sometimes ordered alphabetically by first letter as well, the now predominant method, and Samuel Johnson's dictionary used that method to organize the words, as well as used textual references to create the first 'modern' dictionary in 1755.  This dictionary encompassed the English language as it was used, and not just the difficult, rare words that almost exclusively made up the content of the dictionaries that came before it.  Even though Johnson's dictionary was not always accurate and unbiased (and there were sometimes humorous definitions included in the text), his work set up the methodology that all dictionaries after would emulate.

And some fun Dictionary facts from Express.co.uk:
  • Johnson's Dictionary took him 9 years to complete, the encyclopedic Oxford English Dictionary (OED) took 70 years.
  • The word with the most definitions in the OED is 'run'
  • "Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604, which is often seen as the first English dictionary, had no words beginning with J, K, U, W, X or Y ...but J and I were seen as the same letter at that time, as were U and V, so only K, W, X and Y words were really absent."
Does anyone use a physical dictionary any more to look up words? 

Wikipedia / Wikipedia

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  1. I use m-w.com all the time when I'm writing - but more for the thesaurus and only occasionally for the dictionary.

    I love the fact that some were organized by root word. It seems less practical as a reference to find the word you want - because you'd already have to have that knowledge in order to find the word you need. But it seems like it'd be a great way to learn to relate words with the same root. I don't know it just seems like a really cool idea.

  2. I still use my collegiate dictionary -- especially when I'm going to quote a definition. I trust it more than the free on-line dictionaries and it's faster than logging on to the library's website to get access to their OED -- although that's what I do when I really want the best word experience.

    Have you read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester? It's an intriguing story about one aspect of making the original OED.

  3. I love that now my ereader allows me to look up a word... dictionaries have come a long way!

  4. I use an online dictionary as well - and most the thesaurus too! - for blog writing. It's so much easier than a physical dictionary now!

    And I agree - with the root word dictionary you would probably need to know more about the history of the language to be able to make good use of it - it would be nice to have that knowledge (like to know more about Latin and Greek) to be able to use one!

  5. Oh I don't use a physical dictionary any more, but of course it is nice to be able to flip through a dictionary and perhaps come across other words you want to know the meaning of. At least that is what my experience with a physical dictionary used to be like. Now I'm just in and out with the online ones! :)

    I haven't read The Professor and the Madman! It sounds interesting! I'll look it up!

  6. Oh me too! I'm much more likely to look up a word I don't know now too if I can just press it on my kindle! Convenience is always a win for me I think. :D

  7. I definitely love the convenience of being able to look up words instantly on my Kindle and phone. There's still an old school part of me that likes using a physical dictionary, though, lol. I was really sad a few years ago when I had to replace the Webster's Collegiate that was my constant companion throughout high school and college!

  8. It'd be so hard to find words not ordered by alphabetically as it is! Though, rhyme would be kind of fun to try to find things. :) I LOVE the OED. It's so fun to go look up the historical information for words. :D

    I don't think I ever use a physical dictionary anymore... It's just so easy to Google!

  9. I've never really looked at the OED! I just went to the online version - I have to bookmark it for future use! I think the historical info is so fascinating - especially when English has such strange words and spellings!

  10. Hey, I don't think I've ever seen a feature like this before. Very original! I still use a physical dictionary every now and then, yes. But I quickly look things up online as well.

  11. Thank you! I was so sure no one uses a physical dictionary any more! LOL But it's always nice to have a physical book so it's great you do use a physical dictionary! :)

  12. Gulp. I haven't touched a physical dictionary in a looong time. Using my Kindle app or just the Internet is simply too convenient. It reminds me of a book a read a few months back called the Word Exchange, which depicts a future look at how our the world's language is falling apart.

  13. Another great and informative post, Charlene! :) I don't use a physical dictionary to look up words any more, I don't think I even have one lying around anymore. :( But I do have memories of using that huge dictionary in the library when I was much younger to look something up! :D

  14. I know - it's just too easy to look up words - just being able to type up the word is so much easier than looking it up alphabetically. I find that I really don't have the same grasp on the order of the alphabet sometimes haha. I have heard so many good things about The Word Exchange - I want to read it soon!

  15. Oh yes, when I was younger actually I really enjoyed looking through the dictionary! Sometimes I'd find some new word and try to remember it. Of course I can do a word of a day thing online now too so the internet is taking that away from me. :D