Dictionary

After much consideration, I finally decided that the first entry for Word Stories should discuss the word dictionary itself. After all, dictionaries are an infinitely useful resource without which many of us linguists would be stuck in the mud. Plus, I love them. So where does the word dictionary come from? And what story does it have to tell?

As you might expect, dictionary has Latin roots, or at least post-Classical Latin roots since it is a compound of dictiō (‘diction’, originally meaning ‘word’ or ‘expression’) and –ārius  (-ary, a suffix meaning ‘connected with’ or ‘pertaining to’). In fact, the term seems to have been a novel coinage in 1220 by an Englishman, John of Garland, who taught Latin in Paris. He used it to describe his elementary textbook in which Latin words were grouped by theme in 84 paragraphs. Indeed, the introduction to the book, probably written by the author himself, talks of the reasoning behind the new coinage.

The word didn’t crop up again after that until the 14th century when Pierre Bersuire created an encyclopedic guide to words in the Latin Bible, which was ordered alphabetically. Since then, it was used to refer to any alphabetized book of words, particularly those translating words of one language into another.

Of course, the use of the term dictionary with the meaning we know today – not only the bilingual books used for translation but also monolingual dictionaries providing explanations of words – didn’t really come into widespread use until much later, in the 17th century to be specific. These initial monolingual dictionaries were used to explain ‘hard words’, such as Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall in 1604 or Henry Cockeram’s English Language Dictionary in 1623. But it was Samuel Johnson’s A Dcitionary of the English Language in 1755 that was the first attempt at comprehensively recording the entirety of the English Language, and for this reason it is still known today as a great feat of human achievement.

It wasn’t until around 150 years later that the dictionary we all know and trust, the Oxford English Dictionary, would be compiled. Begun in 1884, it took over 50 years to complete when it was finally released in 1928. Since then, it has been revised and updated and other dictionaries have been written. As our language continues to evolve, so must our dictionaries. And with that comes more lexicographers, a combined form from Greek words lexicon (a collection of words) and –graphy (graphic representation). The lexicographer is the word-lover busy compiling those dictionaries, or, as Samuel Johnson famously stated in his own dictionary, ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words’.

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One thought on “Dictionary

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday Word Stories! | Word Stories

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