History Of The Dictionary
A concise history of English Language dictionaries from Samuel Johnson to the present
English language dictionaries comprise a sub-chapter in the history of the English language, which was born in the 5th Century A.D. with the invasion of England by Germanic tribes. As the Germanic conquerors remained in England, the language of one of them eventually prevailed; Anglisc, and so the language of the Angle tribe became the progenitor of the language we speak today.
All English subsequently spoken and written has been arbitrarily divided into three periods: Old English--400-1,000, Middle English--1,000-1,500, and Modern English--1500-to the present.
It's safe to say that no English dictionaries were developed during the Old English period because the printing press had not yet been invented. However, a number of lexicographic efforts were attempted as early as 1440 during the Middle English period, but these were essentially spelling books and/or books of hard words only. The most complete of these effort, prior to 1676, covered only 5,000 words.
Although scholars dispute that Englishman Samuel Johnson wrote the first English dictionary in 1755, it is without argument that Johnson created the first significant dictionary. Johnson's intent was to "fix" the language, i.e., lend it stability and regularity. Based on his own wide reading, the dictionary he set out to create was to be a book of hard words only. Working in long hand with aid of three amanuenses, he finished the book in nine years, leading a later wit to comment that Johnson did in nine years what it took the French Academy a century to do.
Johnson's book rapidly became a British standard reference work, found on library shelves for the next 100 years. Unlike our modern faceless dictionaries, Johnson's work is peppered with peculiarities. Some of his definitions, for example, are absolutely baffling. Take Johnson's definition of "network"
Any thing reticulated or decussated at equal distances,
with interstices between the intersections
or his definition of "cough" as examples:
A convulsion of the lungs,
vellicated by some sharp serosity.
In other cases, his book was simply quirky as when he defined such defunct words as "clancular," "incompossible," and "jobbernowl," or when he defined "oats" as that grain which in England is fed to horses, but which in Scotland supports the people. Or his definition of a "lexicographer" as "a harmless drudge," in keeping with his estimate of a dictionary making as "drudgery for the blind...requiring neither the light of learning nor the activity of genius."
The first American dictionary of significance was that of Noah Webster, a New England lawyer and teacher, interested in spelling reform. In 1828 Webster produced An American Dictionary of the English Language. The uniqueness of this 70,000 compilation was its abandonment of British spelling for "simpler" American variations, e.g., waggon became wagon, centre-center, musick-music, and honour-honor. It's interesting to note, however, that not all of Webster's reforms took hold. Example of his failure include tung for tongue and wimmen for women.
Eventually Webster's dictionaries were purchased by the G. C. Merriam Company, giving them the right to call their publications Webster's dictionaries, but subsequently the name Webster has gone into the public domain, and any dictionary company wishing to make its product seem more authoritative appends Webster to the title. The upshot of that is the term Webster's on the front of a dictionary has become essentially meaningless.
The next leap forward in dictionary making happened in England. 100 years after Johnson, the British philological society, set out to completely reexamine the language from its Anglo-Saxon origins onward with an eye towards completeness. Under the guidance of James A. Murray, the project proved to be far more formidable than expected. After five years, the collaborators had only reached "ant." However, work continued, and after 71 years a dictionary in 10 volumes, totaling 400,000 words emerged. Probably the most scholarly of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, gives a separate entry for each different meaning of a word, including various sentences citing and illustrating that particular usage. Subsequently, extensive revision and supplementation, costing millions of dollars, have been ongoing, and a CD-rom version now exists.
After Noah Webster and the OED, the world of dictionary making rolled on placidly for over a hundred years, but then a new science, linguistics, appeared on the scene. In 1963 the G.C. Merriam Company introduced their periodic revision. They called it Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
What was unique about this version was it was based on linguistic principles, setting out to describe the language as it actually existed rather than acting as a policeman or legislator of language as had Johnson back in the 1750s. The immediate impact of this new approach was that slang words, offensive words, and certain incorrect words were admitted to the dictionary. Henceforth, one could no longer assume that a word's inclusion in the dictionary meant that it was a correct word.
Now status labels and lexicographic notes became terribly significant in revealing the whole truth regarding the word. For example, a word might be cataloged in the dictionary, but the status label might reveal it is a non-standard word, e.g. "ain't" or "irregardless." In other cases, the label might reveal the word is archaic, e.g., "bodkin"-dagger; dialect, e.g., "poke"--an Appalachian word for a bag or sack; colloquial or conversational, e.g., to have "guts"; vulgar, e.g., "piss"; or even an obscenity.
This powerful new unabridged dictionary, which cost several million dollars to produce, created something of a stir, sometimes evoking passionate criticism. In the 1990's, a further revision was released. This masterful work, costing a purchaser over a hundred dollars, examines nearly half a million words and includes an addendum of the latest words. And finally in 1996, Webster's Third went on line.
However, controversy dogs the makers of dictionaries. Inclusion of the word "nigger" has offended various groups, and a campaign has been mounted to excise it. However, dictionary makers have refused to succumb to pressure, arguing that the offending word is labeled an objectionable slur and that the function of today's dictionary is to describe the language as it exists, warts and all.