Notes for a brief History of English Lexicography

Mi post de hoy va dedicado con nostalgia a mis querido alumnos de Lexicografía Inglesa, hasta el curso 2011-12, año en el que la asignatura dejó de impartirse, por haber sido excluida incomprensiblemente del Plan de Bolonia.



The earliest ‘list of words’ that might be said to constitute the beginnings of English lexicography were the glossaries of Anglo-Saxon priests and schoolteachers, compiled to enable those who didn’t know Latin to read Latin manuscripts (English lexicography is generally accepted as beginning sometime around the early eighth century). These glossaries then were essentially lists of Latin words with English glosses. Then in the 15th c., following the revival of classic learning and literature, we also find the opposite: English-Latin, to enable learners to master Latin.
It isn’t until the beginning of the 17th c. that we find the first English-English Dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical.... But in Cawdrey’s Dictionary we find only the ‘hard words’, that is words borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin or French. These Dictionaries of hard words continue to appear throughout the 17th c. and then at the beginning of the 18th c. the first English-English dictionary was published containing not only the ‘hard words’ but all the common English words.

English Dictionaries before Samuel Johnson

15th century

1440.- Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum (a treasure or store-house for the young or for clerks).
It’s an English-Latin dictionary, first English, then several Latin equivalents.
Attributed to Galfridus Grammaticus (Geoffrey the Grammarian), a Dominican monk in Norfolk.
Printed in 1499 (printing was introduced in England in 1476). It contains 12.000 entries. Written in the dialect of East Anglia.

16th century

1538.- Sir Thomas Elyot’s Dictionarie (a Latin-English dictionary). First to use the word ‘dictionary’.

17th century

1604.- Robert Cawdrey’s A table Alphabeticall containing and teaching the true meaning and understanding of hard English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French and &. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English wordes, gathered for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons.
Generally considered the first English-English dictionary.
It’s a dictionary of hard words and contains 2.500 entries.

18th century

1702.- J.K’s A New English Dictionary (J.K. believed to be the initials of John Kersey, because he’s the author of other dictionaries of about the same time).
First English Dictionary to include common words as well as ‘hard’ ones (28.000 entries).

1730.- Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (48.000 entries).
Used by Samuel Johnson as a working base for his own dictionary.

Samuel Johnson

Biography: Important dates

1709.- September, 18th; born at Lichfield, near Birmingham, the son of a bookseller of that town.

1728-29.- educated at Grammar School (Lichfield) and later at Pembroke College, Oxford, but took no degree. Of his schoolmaster at Lichfield he commented later in one of his letters that he whipped the boys severely “to save them from the gallows”.

1731.- his father dies, leaving his family in poverty.

1735.- marries Mrs Elizabeth Porter, a widow, considerably older than himself. She brought with her a dowry of ₤700, which he probably used to set up a private school at Edial, near Lichfield, which was not successful. She and her husband had a sincere admiration for each other, and it seems he sincerely loved her.

1746.- signs contract with a group of booksellers to write a Dictionary of the English Language.

1747.- publishes his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, who awarded him ₤10.

1750.- starts The Rambler, a periodical written almost entirely by himself, which ran for two years, till 1752. Here and later in The Idler he shows himself as a moralist and a social reformer, opposing death penalty for robbery, war and colonialism. His essays were greatly admired by his wife.

1752.- wife dies.

1755.- April, 15th, his A Dictionary of the English Language is published in 2 volumes.

1756.- an abridged edition of his Dictionary is published.

1762.- the King George III confers on him an annual pension of ₤300. He doubted whether it would be decent to accept it, considering he had defined ‘pension’ in his Dictionary as “pay given to a state hireling for treasons to his country”, but his friends, the famous painter Joshua Reynolds among them, persuaded him to accept it.

1763.- May, 16th, he meets James Boswell in the back parlour of Thomas Davies’ bookshop. Boswell, who was 31 years younger than Samuel, was to become his biographer.

1765.- his edition of Shakespeare, in 8 vols., is published.

1784.- December, 13th, he dies, and a week later is buried in Westminster Abbey. A monument was erected to him in St. Paul’s.

1791.- The Life of Samuel by James Boswell is published. It is generally regarded as the best English biography of all times.

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language

- First published in 2 vols. on 15th April, 1755, addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield.

- based on Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730.

- 40.000 headwords and 116.000 quotations

- famous for its quotations, etymologies and definitions, though some etymologies and some definitions were wrong.

- in his Plan he stated that he proposed to show the history of every word (“the reader will be informed of the gradual changes of the language, and have before his eyes the rise of some words and the fall of others”, but he never did this. This task was undertaken later on by the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles lexicographers led by Murray.

- pronunciation: he shows only the stress, but sometimes indicates it by citing a word with the same vowel quality.

- printed, with some changes, five times in Johnson’s life, and many others after his death, until 1827.

The Philological Society and the Genesis of The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles

On May 18th, 1842, a meeting of clergymen, philologists, academics and etymologists was held in London, and they founded the Philological Society, “for the investigation of the Structure, the Affinities and the History of Languages” (comparative philology).

On June, 18th 1857, the Philological Society decided that it was necessary to update past dictionaries (Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language and Richardson’s A New Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1837) and accommodate their etymologies to the new philological principles. The Philological Society appointed three of its members: Trench, Coleridge and Furnivall as an “Unregistered Words Committee” whose task was to amass “words and idioms formerly unregistered in any dictionary”, with the purpose of publishing a Supplement to existing works.

But in November that same year, following Trench’s paper “On some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries”, the Philological Society changed its mind and decided to publish a New Dictionary of English, and thus the project for the greatest English dictionary of all times was born. The Society decided to convert The Unregistered Words Committee into a ‘Literary Historical Committee’, with the purpose this time of preparing a New English Dictionary, an Historical Dictionary. They also commissioned them to try and find a potential printer, and after several failed approaches to various publishers (MacMillan among them), Furnivall finalled managed to persuade Oxford University Press to accept to undertake the publication of the future Dictionary.

Little progress was made by these three first editors. Trench soon returned to his ecclesiastical duties, Coleridge died very young and Furnivall had many other concerns to see to, so he advertised for the job of editor and finally James Murray, a teacher at Mill Hill School in North London and a member of the Philological Society accepted and in 1878, he was officially appointed editor.

James A.H. Murray

He’s the main editor of The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, later re-titled The Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
He was born near Hawick, S.E. Scotland on February, 17th, 1837, the son of Thomas Murray, a clothier, and he died in his Oxford home on July, 26th, 1915.
At the age of 17, he became a master at Hawick Grammar School; in 1870 he joined Mill Hill School as a master and in 1873, he graduated BA from London university.
He married twice; first in 1862, but his wife died two years later, though he had moved to the supposedly warmer climate of London. In 1867, he married again, and his new wife, Ada, gave him 11 children, 6 sons and 5 daughters.
In 1878, he was appointed editor of The New English Dictionary and his new job took over so much of his time that he was forced reluctantly to abandon his teaching and move to Oxford, where all his children enthusiastically helped him sort out the slips in the ‘Scriptorium’, known by the family as ‘the Scrippy, a shed he had built in the back garden of his house.
He was a very religious man (in the Congregationalist creed) and found in his religion the justification for a life of dedicated work, since for him, to learn and to spread that learning was to serve God.
He had a working knowledge of many languages, living and dead, which he learnt reading the Bible in each language.
Aside from his work on the Dictionary, he found time to be a deacon of his chapel in Oxford, to garden, to cycle, to collect stamps, etc.
Murray died before the Dictionary was completed, but his prestige was and is immense, and he was fully satisfied of what he had achieved.

The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles later re-titled The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

It began to appear in fascicles and the first one came out in 1884. Later the fascicles were collected in volumes, and the 10th and last volume was published in 1928, 13 years after Murray’s death.
Its main editor was James Murray, who began his work in 1878, but later some other assistant-editors were appointed to help him: Henry Bradley, author of the famous Dictionary of Place Names, joined in 1888; William Craigie, in 1901, and Charles Onion, author of The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, in 1914.
The Dictionary’s first edition had 240.000 entries.
In 1933, a new edition, re-titled The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 12 volumes plus a Supplement was published, edited by Robert Burchfield. It contained 252.259 entries.
In 1989, the 2nd edition of the OED, in 20 volumes, edited by John Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, was published. This edition contained 290.500 entries and 2.412.400 quotations


The earliest dictionaries to appear in independent America (since 1776) were dictionaries imported from England, mainly spelling and pronouncing dictionaries: Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, John Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary of the English Language, etc.

The main American lexicographers are Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born on October 16th, 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Webster worked on his father’s farm until he was fourteen, then he attended local school, and in 1774 he entered Yale, where he learnt Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and graduated when he was 20.
He then went into teaching and to remedy the deficiencies he had noticed in his students he wrote his first work: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It consisted of three parts: a spelling book, a grammar and a reader. The spelling book was a great success, and re-titled Elementary Spelling Book, it was adopted as a universal textbook in American schools. Called ‘the blue-backed speller’, it sold more than 30.000.000 copies.
He wanted to reform American spelling, and he’s responsible for the exclusion of some superfluous letters, for instance the ‘u’ in words ending in ‘our’: colour, favour, honour, etc. became in American spelling color, favor, honor, etc.
His first full-scale lexicographic work is Compendious Dictionary of the English Dictionary, published in 1806. It contained 40.600 headwords.
In 1810, Webster announced his project to make an all-American dictionary in his Prospectus of a New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language. The Dictionary, titled American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828 in two volumes, with 70.000 headwords. Webster’s Dictionary has been criticized, especially his etymologies. His many errors sprang mainly from his strong religious convictions (he did not question anything the Bible says) and from his ignorance of Anglo-Saxon, the language which really is at the root of so many English words. Fortunately, his etymologies were put right in 1864, thanks to the German scholar C.A.F. Mahn, who had been commissioned by G & C Merriam, Webster’s dictionaries publishing company.
Webster died on May 28th, 1843, aged 84.
Webster’s Dictionary, duly updated, is still published in America, where the name Webster is synonymous with dictionary.

Joseph E. Worcester

Joseph Emerson Worcester was Webster’s great rival.
He was born in Bedford, New Hampshire, on August 24th, 1784.
Like Webster, he worked on his father’s farm, but he did not attend school until he was 21, because his father, a strict Calvinist, did not allow any of his 14 sons and daughters to leave the farm till they reached that age. So, when he was 21, Worcester went to a school where most of his classmates were aged nine. He left after four years and then entered Yale, where he graduated in 1811.
Worcester’s first lexicographical work was his edition of a popular dictionary: Johnson’s English Dictionary as Improved by Todd and Abridged by Chalmers, with Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary Combined, published in 1827.
In 1829, he abridged Webster’s Dictionary, presumably by an amicable arrangement, but he cut down Webster’s definitions and he ignored all but the most important etymologies and citations, so Webster was not pleased and accused Worcester of tampering with his text.
In 1830, Worcester had his Comprehensive, Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary published, and Webster accused him of plagiarism, of having purloined 121 of his definitions. Worcester replied that he had started working on his Dictionary long before he began his abridgement of Webster’s, and he gave the sources from which he had taken those 121 definitions. This is what is known as ‘the war of the dictionaries’.
In 1860, Worcester published his last and best work: A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language, containing 132.406 entries.
Worcester’s dictionaries were very famous during his lifetime and rivalled with Webster’s in the public’s favour, but since 1864, after Mahn’s revision of Webster came out Worcester’s dictionaries fell in oblivion.
He died on October 27th, 1865, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


The first dictionaries of this kind, published in the 16th century, were lists of the cant  words or jargon used by the contemporay underworld. These lists were useful to magistrates.
In the subsequent centuries, the best known slang and taboo dictionaries are the following:
Captain Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1785.
John William Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, which appeared in 1859.
John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues in seven volumes, of which the first appeared in 1890 and the last, in 1904.
Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in two volumes, first published in 1937.
Eric Partrige, born on February 6th, 1894 in New Zealand, is the most outstanding figure of the 20th century. Apart from A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, his works include Slang Today and Yesterday (1933), Shakespeare’s Bawdy (1947), A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), A Dictionary of Historical Slang (1972), Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977) and many others.
He died on June, 1st, 1979, a resident of a West Country nursing home.


I have investigated for over 20 years the language used in English for the taboo of sex, and the result has been the book pubLished in 2009 (see bibliography below). It is also online with the title Dictionary of Euphemisms and Dysphemisms in English Erotica with Spanish Equivalents.


GREEN, JONATHON (1997 Chasing the Sun. Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made. London: Pimlico.
HARTMANN, R.K.K. (1987) History of Lexicography. London: Routledge.
JACKSON, HOWARD (1988) Words and Their Meaning, London and New York: Longman.
LANDAU, SIDNEY I. (1989) Dictionaries. The Art and Craft of Lexicography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MARTÍNEZ DE SOUSA, JOSÉ (1995) Diccionario de Lexicografía Práctica, Barcelona: Vox.MOLINA GARCÍA, DANIEL (2006) Fraseología Bilingüe. Un enfoque lexicográfico-pedagógico. Granada: Comares.
MOLINA GARCÍA, DANIEL & FCO SÁNCHEZ BENEDITO (2007) Análisis del Diccionario Nuevo de las Dos Lenguas Española é Inglesa de Connelly & Higgins (1797-1798). Málaga: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad.
SÁNCHEZ BENEDITO, FCO (2001) “The Treatment of Sex Phraseology in the 2nd Edition of the OED”, en RESLA, vol. 14, 387-402.
SÁNCHEZ BENEDITO, FCO. (2009) Dictionary of English Euphemisms and Dysphemisms for the Taboo of Sex with Spanish Equivalents. Granada: Comares (also online).
SVENSÉN, BO (1993) Practical Lexicography. Principles and Methods of Dictionary-Making, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

5 comentarios :

  1. Writing is an art form that reaches a multitude of people from all walks of life, different cultures, and age group. As a writer, it is not about what you want. english slang dictionary

  2. Mine is a specific dictionaty of the taboo of sex.

  3. Nice write-up! If you want to promote your blog site for free, leave a comment at http://www.coreforceworldwide.com/why-we-write-for-you/

  4. My name is francisco sánchez benedito. My e-mail: fsanchez@uma.es My blog: sanchezbenedito.blogspot.com. The purpose of my blog, which is and always have been completely free, is to help my students improve their English with posts about grammar, lexicon, idioms, stories and a bit of humour. Luckily I get many visits (about 40,000 since I started it a year ago), but of course any professional free promotion on your part would be welcome. Thank you.