Dictionaries and the World of Lexicography

by | December 3, 2019 |

Dictionaries: not the sexiest topic ever. Even the famous dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, in the title quote, acknowledged himself to be a “harmless drudge.”

Nevertheless, an article in the New York Times this past weekend has inspired me. It is Latin Dictionary’s Journey: A to Zythum in 125 Years (and Counting). In the 1890s Germans researchers began the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae ‘thesaurus of the Latin language.’ They thought they’d be done in 15 or 20 years. Today they’ve made it up to the letter R. They’re now hoping to be done by 2050.

The topic of the laborious production of dictionaries reminded me of the unit I always do in the History of English. So I’m sharing a bit of it here.

Dictionaries: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Before Samuel Johnson, no one had written an English-English dictionary.

Of course dictionaries had existed for a long time. They were English-Latin or English-French or English-Whatever. Beginning in the 17th century a dictionary or two popped up to define difficult words, borrowings from Latin and Greek that had started coming into the language.

But until Johnson no one had written a dictionary of the whole language. His Dictionary of the English Language (1755) included definitions of common words such as ‘heart’ and ‘house’ and ‘dog.’ He also included as many senses of a word that he could imagine and offered examples of the use of the word found in a literary passage. His definitions sometimes come with social satire. The one of ‘oats’ is famous.


Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people

He also doesn’t shy away from political satire. He illustrates the definition of ‘irony’ with the sentence: “Bolingbroke was a holy man.” We don’t have to know who Bolingbroke was to know what Johnson thought of him.

Johnson’s dictionary remained pre-eminent for the next 173 years.

Dictionaries: The Oxford English Dictionary

Aka: the O.E.D.

In 1857 the Philological Society of London called for a new dictionary. They got around to starting it in 1879. Five years later they had made it up to the word ant. Oops! The project came to the end of its first edition in 1928. And since language is always changing, the second edition came in 1989.

The current edition has over 600,000 words. They have meanings often going back to Old English and uses of the word in a text from the 6th or 7th centuries.

In addition they have the latest words. Nomophobia is a good one. It means ‘anxiety about not having access to a mobile phone.’

The O.E.D. add new words four times a year. See the latest list:

New words lists October 2019

Dictionaries: Noah Webster (1758-1843)

Americans are familiar Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

Although dictionary definitions may no longer have overt political points of view, dictionaries themselves have political meaning. Webster wanted an American dictionary.

Dictionaries: The Urban Dictionary

The dictionary I use most these days is Urban Dictionary. Aaron Peckham founded the crowdsourced online dictionary for slang words and phrases in 1999. He says he started it as a joke, but it quickly became relevant. And since it’s crowdsourced, we’re back to the days of Samuel Johnson where political opinions and satire crop up. The internet being the internet, what started out 20 years ago as a relatively innocent civic endeavor has been transformed. Comments/definitions now sometimes drift into nastiness.

Guess what the most frequent subject is?

It becomes apparent from the current top definition for urban dictionary: “A site where it’s a challenge to find one subject where no one talks about sex.”

Nevertheless, the site gets 65 million visitors a month. I checked it out a few weeks ago for the word getty, which all high schoolers and college kids know. This word came up in class the other day.


So, dictionaries. Not such a dull topic, after all. Or at least not a useless one.

You go, German guys and your Thesaurus Linguae Latinae!

For another recent blog of mine on language see: Teasers and the Poetic Function of Language

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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