Dictionary throughout history

A dictionary, sometimes known as a wordbook, is a collection of words in one or more specific languages, often arranged alphabetically, which may include information on definitions, etymologies, pronunciations, translation or a book of words in one language with their equivalents in another, sometimes known as a lexicon. As far as the dictionary is concerned, it has evolved throughout history, from the analogue representation, the book, to the digital representation, the apps.

It all started when, in 1220, the word "dictionary" was invented by an Englishman called John of Garland - he had written a book Dictionarius to help with the Latin "diction". Over the previous 150 years, more than twenty dictionaries had been published in England, the oldest of these being a Latin-English "wordbook" by Sir Thomas Elyot published in 1538.

After a few years, in 1582 Richard Mulcaster published the Elementarie as an attempt to make the English language and culture more respected and accessible. By stabilising the language, Mulcaster hoped that English would be recognised by scholars for its richness and vitality.

The Elementarie contains a list of 8,000 words, none of which are accompanied by definitions, and therefore the list cannot strictly be classified as a dictionary – there was no such thing as a purely English dictionary at the time. After this attempt to start to organise the English language, in 1604 the first book generally regarded as the first English dictionary was written by Robert Cawdrey, who made use of wordlists published earlier in educational texts. It was not until Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language that a more reliable English dictionary was produced. By this stage, dictionaries had evolved to contain textual references for most words, and were arranged alphabetically, rather than by topic. Johnson's masterwork could be judged as the first to bring all these elements together, creating the first "modern" dictionary. Each word was defined in detail; the definitions illustrated with quotations covering every branch of learning. It was a huge scholarly achievement.

The rise of literacy among the general public, combined with the technical advances in the mechanics of printing and bookbinding, meant that for the first time, books, texts, maps, pamphlets and newspapers were widely available to the general public at a reasonable cost. Such an explosion of the printed word demanded a set pattern of grammar, definition, and spelling for those words. The problem with these dictionaries was that they tended to be little more than poorly organised and poorly researched glossaries of "hard words"; words that were technical, foreign, obscure or just old. 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 remains the most comprehensive and trusted English language dictionary to this day, with revisions and updates added by a dedicated team every three months. As you’ve seen in the Powerpoint down below, they were huge, expensive books, difficult to carry around when needed.

Once upon a time, people bought dictionaries – big printed books – in very large numbers, just as families once bought prestigious multi-volume encyclopedias. As far as encyclopedias go, those days are already past: who’s going to pay hundreds of pounds for a reference book which will be out of date by the time you get it back from the bookshop? Especially when you can find all the encyclopedic information you need online, without paying a penny. The age of the Internet brought online dictionaries to the desktop and, more recently, to the smart phone.

An electronic dictionary is a dictionary whose data exists in digital form and can be accessed through a number of different media. Electronic dictionaries can be found in several forms, including software installed on tablet or desktop computers, mobile apps, web applications, and as a built-in function of E-readers. They may be free or require payment. Most of the early electronic dictionaries were, in effect, print dictionaries made available in digital form: the content was identical, but the electronic editions provided users with more powerful search functions. Electronic dictionary databases, especially those included with software dictionaries are often extensive and can contain up to 500,000 headwords and definitions, verb conjugation tables, and a grammar reference section. Some of them, because they are intended to be fully portable, are battery-powered and made with durable casing material. In general, electronic dictionaries have three basic advantages, which are: easy and fast word searching, specific keyword searching, data storage equivalent to a large number of books.

We have talked about their physical form over time and now let’s move on how the content changed.

To complete one dictionary, it took years and sometimes many mistakes were included, but now, when it’s the internet’s era and everything is about how fast things move, the content it’s in constant change every day. Well, most editors spend a bit of time each day reading different books, newspapers, magazines and electronic publications. While reading, they keep an eye out for things like new words or phrases, new spellings and new uses for existing words or phrases. When editors come across something interesting, they mark the word or phrase and collect information that explains how it is used and what it means. This process is called “reading and marking." Once a new word or phrase has been marked, editors enter it into a computer system. They also create a “citation”. Having many citations, though, does not guarantee admission into the dictionary. If citations do not provide a clear definition of the word or phrase or if all the citations come from one source, it may be rejected.

We’re humans. We love to play with words in creative ways. And in the process, we change the language. In retrospect, we often think the changes words undergo are fascinating. May we transfer some of that fascination and wonder — some of the awe that used to make the words awful and awesome synonymous — to the changes we’re witnessing today. It's only been a few decades since a dictionary was 20 inches tall, it cost about £600 to own one, and it took years to complete it, although the words changed so much frequently. Now, you can download a simple application to your phone (a process that takes a few minutes) and you can get free of charge for millions of updated words and phrases.

The difference between analogue and digital representation of dictionary is huge, everything happened in a few years. How will the dictionary be in 10 years from now? We’ll see.

(all the references for this post are down below in the PowerPoint presentation)

Dictionary - Emma Ion
Download PPTX • 1.87MB

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