Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Story Of The Dictionary

Luckily I possess a copy of the title page of the First Dictionary in English " A TABLE ALPHABETICALL" printed in London in

1604 which outlines the purpose of the First Dictionary. Those of you who are interested may get intouch with me on theE-mail.

Best Wishes

B.M.N.Murthy, Saturday 20th June 2009

---Early Stages and Development

The English language began to acquire its prestige and popularity during Geoffrey Chaucer’s time [1340-1400 A.D]. By the early days of the B.B.C. it was so well established that the job of a radio announcer was closed to anyone whose accent was regional or not upper middle class. It is the B.B.C. that established the Standard British English or the Queen’s English [B.B.C. began its first Radio transmission for its London station in 1922] whose origin lies in the 15th Century A.D. It was at this time that the British Government started writing their records in English rather than in Latin. That helped to standardize English vocabulary and grammar. Probably this led the way to the compilation of an English dictionary and that is why the first English dictionary came into existence in the early part of the 17th Century.

It is of interest to note that when Shakespeare wrote several of his plays, nearly two third of his works, no English dictionary was in existence. Without a dictionary to help him, it remains an enigma even today how did the Bard of Avon acquire such a staggering stockpile of words. His vocabulary in all his works is a torrential outpour of words and words. Probably nothing but Divine Grace of an English Goddess of Learning in the incarnation of a British Kali must have enabled him to display such a wide spectrum of learning. This should remind us of our own Kalidasa who was a mere shepherd, as the legend goes, before he became a world class poet.

Though the first English dictionary was published in 1604, which could truly be called a dictionary, an immediate precursor of that dictionary was Edmund Coote’s
“The English School Master” [Coote was just a school teacher] which was published eight years earlier in 1596. This compilation was a collection of catechisms, grammar, prayers etc for reference and could not be classified as a dictionary in the true sense, though it contained a vocabulary of about 1,500 words. This was developed, enlarged and improved upon in 1604 by another school teacher by name Robert Cawdrey who borrowed freely from Coote, without acknowledgement. Cawdrey included many more words, augmented the definition of words and got his work published in London in 1604 which has been universally accepted as the first English dictionary. Cawdrey named the first English dictionary as “A Table Alphabeticall” and it defines about 2,500 words in all, starting from the word ‘ABANDON’ and ending with the word ‘ZODIAC’. It is learnt that only one copy of this dictionary is today available and is carefully preserved in the Oxford University Library.

As no language is static it is bound to enrich itself in course of time with new words and sometimes with revised definitions. The word ‘abandon’ which was in the first place in the first dictionary was relegated to the 33rd place in the Oxford English Dictionary published in 1933, after a lapse of nearly 350 years. The same Oxford Dictionary which published a revised and enlarged version in 1984 contained nearly 4, 50, 000 words as
against 2,500 words in the year 1604. This was certainly a quantum jump for John

Murray who, along with his team, took nearly 28 years to complete it. It may be noted that the first Oxford Dictionary was published in 1878.

With changes in the social set up and changes in the cultural habits of people it is natural that words acquire newer meanings and definitions. T.B.Macaulay [1800-1859], the great historian and Master of English prose, has used such expressions as ‘an historian’, ‘an historical survey’ etc. During his time, the letter ‘h’ was silent and not pronounced. Since it is now pronounced, we are correct in writing ‘a historical survey’ etc. When King James called St. Peter’s Cathedral as ‘amusing, awful and artificial’, the Architect of the Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren, was terribly pleased since in those days, amusing meant amazing, awful meant awe-inspiring and artificial meant artistic. Shakespeare used the word ‘err’ in the sense of ‘wonder’ which meaning is totally out of vogue today. It is therefore evident that when grammarians like H.H.Fowler, Wren and Martin, Treble and Vallis wrote their grammars and compositions, it pertained to the language of their time and not all that they have said is applicable to contemporary English.

While coinage of new words is common while revising any dictionary, there are instances of deliberately changing the meaning of a word to suit the political whims and fancies of ruling authorities and to avoid embarrassment. For example, when Nikita
Khrushchev was at the helm of Russia, a revised version of a Russian dictionary was published with only one significant change. The Russian word ‘Krusch’ which originally meant ‘a kind of beetle deleterious and harmful to agriculture’ was given a more favorable meaning.

Lord Rayleigh [1842-1919], the British Physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of argon gas in 1904, was commissioned by the Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica to write a chapter on “Light” on the subject of Physics. Busy with his own experiments and research, he missed the deadline set by the Editors. As the Encyclopedia is published alphabetically in several parts and volumes, the Editors did not want to hold up their work. They gave him an extension of time and continued with their work. They expected to publish Rayleigh’s chapter under the re-scheduled title “Optics”. When the Physicist could not be ready even by this extended time, they give him one more extension, planning to publish it under “Wave Theory of Light”. It eventually got published under “Undulating Theory of Light”

While any discussion on lexicography, bibliography and the meaning of words is generally serious, it has its lighter moments too. When the English grammarians first started classification of words, whether it is a noun, a verb, an adverb, a preposition etc
there was confusion as there was no unanimity. When they came to the word “KISS”, they found it difficult to classify it, since it could be classified as

1. A noun as it is both proper and common
2. A pronoun because she stands for it
3. A verb because it is either active or passive
4. A conjunction since it connects two
5. An interjection because it shows strong and sudden feelings
6. A proposition since it follows a subject.

A prominent bibliophile prided himself in his extensive and rare collection of books. He had books on every conceivable subject but ’Love in all its aspects’ was his special collecting enthusiasm. One day as he was about to board a plane he spotted a book entitled “HOW to HUG” in the airport bookstall. Though his plane departure had been announced, he was determined to have this collector’s item. Putting a handful of currency notes from his pocket, he hurriedly paid the salesgirl, grabbed the book and dashed towards the plane. As he settled down in his seat to explore his 25 dollar purchase, he discovered that he had bought the sixth volume of an encyclopedia from the word “HOW” to the word “HUG”


ARTICLE NO.505--" English Dictionary and Encyclopaedia--Early Stages and Development"
Created: Friday, June 19, 2009 9:24 PM


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