Friday, February 20, 2009

On Writing

For everyone who has attended school, who writes at work or at home, who struggles with crossword puzzles, the dictionary is a very useful tool. We take it for granted because it has been part of our lives forever. Many times the book just gathers dust on a bookshelf or under a chair somewhere.

Paging through the book yesterday, the following thought piqued my interest. How did our modern day dictionary evolved? The answer was quite surprising.

In 1538, Sir Thomas Elyot published the first Latin-English "wordbook", followed by Richard Mulcaster in 1583, and John Florio in 1598. These books were poorly organized with hard, antiquated words and no definitions.

The first "so called" English alphabetical dictionary was titled A Table Alphabeticall, written by an English teacher Robert Cawdrey back in 1605. It consisted of 120 pages, and no words beginning with the letters W, X, or Y. The dictionary was considered an unreliable word-book. It listed 2543 words, many with one-word definitions, similar to a list of synonyms. Only one copy survives and can be found at Oxford in the Bodleian Library.

In 1755 when Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language became available, the words were arranged alphabetically instead of by topic, making it the first reliable "modern day" dictionary.

As quoted by Wikipedia, "Johnson's Dictionary remained the English-language standard for over 150 years, until the Oxford University Press began writing and releasing the Oxford English Dictionary in short fascicles from 1884 onwards. It took nearly 50 years to complete the huge work, and they finally released the complete OED in twelve volumes in 1928. It remains the most comprehensive and trusted English language dictionary to this day, with revisions and updates added by a dedicated team every three months. One of the main contributors to this modern day dictionary was an ex-army surgeon, William Chester Minor, a convicted murderer who was confined to an asylum for the criminally insane." (Source:

Words also have an origination date. Per Merriam Webster's web site, in 1500 these sixty-six words first appeared in print. How many of us today would use these everyday words from the 16th century? Here are a few of them from that list:

Athwart - across especially in an oblique direction; Brattle - clatter, scamper; Mort - a note sounded on a hunting horn when a deer is killed; Rapporteur - a person who gives reports (as at a meeting of a learned society); Screak - to make a harsh shrill noise ; Sejant - Sitting-- used of a heraldic animal ; Statant - standing in profile with all feet on the ground ; Whim-wham - a whimsical object or device especially of ornament or dress, fancy, whim.

There are well over thirty different types of dictionaries in use today. Some being slang, magician and foreign language, just to name a few.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Come visit with me more often. and leave a comment. Hmmm, I wonder how the Thesaurus began. That is food for thought at another time.


Helen Ginger said...

Don't think I've ever used any of those words, Gwyn. Thank you for this history lesson!

Morgan Mandel said...

I kind of like whim-wham. The others I could do without.

Morgan Mandel

Jenny Beans said...

Athwart is a fantastic word. I love words and their origin, so I am glad I popped over to read this historical look at them.

Jenny Bean
The Inner Bean