Dictionaries and Lexicons, Part One

(historical and modern)

Seek and You Will Find

A dictionary is a wordbook that gives you the definition of definition, the spelling of spelling, and the pronunciation of pronunciation.

—Evan Esar, from Esar's Comic Dictionary

There are more and more books being printed all the time; but among the most important are the references we call dictionaries and/or lexicons

The modern term “dictionary” comes to us from Latin dictionarium through French dictionnaire which properly means “a book of sayings”. There is a synonym for the word dictionary which comes from Greek, known as a lexicon; and guess what, it ,too, literally means a “book of words”. The term most often used by Europeans is "lexicon"; while most Americans seem to prefer the word "dictionary" when they want a book of words with definitions.

Lexicography refers to the act or process of making a dictionary. What we have here are two words for our modern age: dictionary and lexicon; with both of them meaning the same thing, but one is more commonly used in certain geographical areas than the other.

The term Dictionarius was used in 1225 by an English scholar, John Garland, as a title for a manuscript of Latin words to be learned by memory.

The words were not arranged in alphabetical order but in groups according to their subjects.

This dictionary was used only for the teacher's classroom work in teaching Latin and contained no English except for a few interlined glosses or "translations of single words".

The earliest dictionaries were very limited in scope

  • The earliest lexicographers apparently were monks, men who lived in religious brotherhoods.
  • During the seventh century, before the printing press was invented, these monks worked in church libraries making notes in the margins of their hand-lettered books.
  • In those days, all books were written in Latin which was the language used in the Roman Catholic Church and in universities.
  • The common people; such as, farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, children had no books of their own. In fact, it is very unlikely that they could even read because education was limited to very few people.
  • Why did monks mark up the pages of their hand-made books? It seems the better educated monks who wrote the books wanted to make sure other monks who read the books would know what certain words meant.
  • The notes came to be called glosses, from which we get our word glossary—a list of words with definitions.
  • For a thousand years, these glosses stayed in the books in church libraries. No one did anything with them.
  • The term “dictionary” in one of its Latin forms (dictionarius or dictionarium, a "collection of words") was used c. 1225 by an English scholar, John Garland, as the title for a manuscript of Latin words to be learned by memory.
  • The words were not arranged in alphabetical order but in groups according to subject.
  • This Dictionarius, was used only for the teacher’s classroom work in teaching Latin, and it contained no English except for a few interlined glosses (translations of single words).
  • In the 15th century, English words appeared in dictionaries, but even then they were used only as an aid to the study of Latin, as in the famous Promptorium Parvulorum, "Storehouse for the Little Ones".
  • It was a pioneer English-Latin wordbook.
  • This important manuscript, completed in Norfolk, England, in 1440, was the work of a Dominican friar known as Galfridus Grammaticus or "Geoffrey the Grammarian".
  • He listed about 12,000 English words, mostly nouns and verbs, with their Latin equivalents, and for some time his dictionary held a place of leadership.
  • The Promptorium was written several years before the invention of printing, but in 1499 it was published at the London press of Richard Pynson, an early servant and associate of William Caxton.
  • Giving colorful titles to dictionaries was the custom for many years

  • The Promptorium had a "storehouse", and later, in 1500, came a "garden of words"; for that is the meaning of Ortus Vocabulorum, printed by another of William Caxton's assistants, Wynkyn de Worde.
  • Ortus, is a Low Latin form of hortus, "garden".
  • In the Ortus, Latin words come first, translated by English.
  • The book, like earlier ones, was designed for students of Latin.
  • Abcedarium Anglico-Latinum pro Tyrunculis, 1552, has been called the first real English dictionary

  • The Abcedarium was compiled by Richard Huloet, who was a native of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, England.
  • Pro tyrunculis means "for young beginners of all ages, including adults whose main interest was to learn to read English.
  • Latin study, as usual, was probably the goal of this work, but the Latin translation was not given until the English word had been defined in English; therefore, the Abcedarium is regarded as an English dictionary.
  • Huloet's style was informal and sometimes humorous, which may be seen in the following defintions:
    • Bachiler, or one unmaried, or havying no 'wife, Agamus, mi.
    • Black (or blewe) spotte in the face or bodye, made with a stroke, as when a wife hath a blewe eye, she sayth she hath stombled on hir good man his fyste. Suggilatio, onis; Livor, uoris.
    • Trymme wenche gorgiously decked, Phalerata foemina.
  • Huloet apparently felt that the resplendent young lady needed no further definition in English; and it should be noted that wench, in 1552, was a very proper word; it meant simply "a girl or young woman".
  • The Abcedarium contained 26,000 words and was popular but expensive

  • This fact was recognized by a Yorkshire schoolmaster and physician named Peter Levins, who decided to write a smaller work; then, he said, "the price being little, the poorer sorte may be able to bie it."
  • Comparing Huloet's big book with his own little one, Levins wrote, "his is for greater students, and them that are richable to have it; this is for beginners and them that are poorable to have no better."
  • From that time to this, "richable and poorable" have needed dictionaries, and generations of publishers have tried to serve all of them.
  • Levins named his book, published in 1570, Manipulus Vocabuloroum, "a handful of words", the handful amounting to about 9,000 entries.
  • He also called it, "A dectionarie of English and Latine wordes, set forth in suche order, as none heretofore hath ben . . . necessary not only for scholars that want variety of words, but also for such as use to write in English meetre."
  • To help poets, he arranged his words not according to their initial letters, but by the spelling of their final syllables, which resulted in a sort of rhyming dictionary, the first of its kind in English.
  • The final syllables brought together some strange results; such as, casket, suet; bell, chisel; madame, surname; and the most confusing: bough, cough, through, tough; which even in 1570 were probably nothing more than "eye rhymes".
  • In 1573, John Baret published a dictionary which he named An Alvearie, "behive".
  • Dictionaries from the 17th century

    The compilers of early dictionaries made no attempt to include all of the words they might be able to find. They were satisfied to explain or define the hard words of the language, and often confirmed this in their statements.

  • In the seventeenth century, some monks got the idea of making lists of those Latin glosses and translating them into English. The first dictionary, or glossary, was actually a list of Latin-English glosses. Monks in other countries also compiled Latin-French, Latin-Italian, and Latin-Spanish glossaries.
  • Later in 1604, Robert Cawdrey, an English schoolmaster, published a dictionary, titled A Table Alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usual English Wordes . . . with the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons.
  • Although his dictionary included only difficult words, there is one principle of dictionary making that Cawdrey is remembered for today: he listed words in alphabetical order.
  • Cawdrey, perhaps recalling the complicated groupings of words in some earlier dictionaries, stressed the importance of the word “alphabeticall” in his title.
  • Apparently some “unskilfull persons” in his day (as in ours) had not taken the trouble to learn their ABC’s; so, he said, “Thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand.”
  • In 1623, The English Dictionarie was compiled by "H.C., Gent.," who turned out to be Henry Cockeram.
  • In 1656, a London lawyer named Thomas Blount published a dictionary entitled Glossographia loosely translated as "an expounding of strange words".
  • And finally, in 1676, Elisha Coles issued An English Dictionary with brief and generally adequate definitions and a small but interresting selection of cant and slang expressions. Coles was ingenious; in his address "To the Reader", he wrote:
    • I am no friend to vain and tedious Repetitions; therefore you will often meet with words, explain'd in their Dependence and Relation to one another, and the Sense compleated by taking them together:

      As for example,
      Lupa, a She-wolf that nourished Romulus in the
      Lupercal, a place near Rome, where they celebrated the
      Lupercalia, feasts in honour of Pan, performed by the
      Luperci, Priests of Pan.

  • Coles died in 1680, but his dictionary was often reprinted and survived him by many years.
—Most of the information for this page came from
The Story of The Dictionary by Robert Kraske; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich;
New York and London; 1975; pages 8-10.
Dictionaries and That Dictionary by James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt;
Scott, Foresman and Company; Chicago; 1962; pages 10-20.

Dictionary information. Dictionary sources of information:

Dictionaries and Lexicons, Part Two;
Dictionary with a Touch of Humor.