History Lesson: The Modern Dictionary

3 min read

"What does that word mean?" Before the days of Google, this oft-repeated question from children would receive an answer of, "Go look it up in the dictionary." The dictionary is one of the first reference books to which young students are introduced. This powerful book contains (almost) all of the words you will use throughout your life. Troubled spellers can find the correct order of letters, and non-native speakers will find clues to pronunciation. However, most people don’t have a dog-eared copy of a dictionary on their desk anymore, and word lovers and learners are increasingly turning to the internet. Let’s take a look back at how the English dictionary has evolved over the years.

Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language

Samuel Johnson, an accomplished writer of his time, spent nine years working on his dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language. First published in 1755, the dictionary was both comprehensive and concise, containing textual references for words and arranged alphabetically. Johnson completed his dictionary almost single-handedly, using only an occasional clerk for illustrations and a small staff of secretaries. He took many liberties with his definitions, often inserting his own wit and satire. Johnson even defined his own profession of a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge.” While A Dictionary of the English Language wasn't perfect, it served as the prominent standard for more than 150 years.

Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary had humble beginnings in the dissatisfied grumblings of the members of the Philological Society of London in 1844. It wasn't until 1879 that they successfully convinced Oxford University Press (OUP) to invest in their endeavors. To compile and define words, the Society appealed to newspaper readers to send in "quotation slips," or examples of words used in a variety of settings. Once advertised, quotation slips came pouring in at an average of 1,000 reports a day.

The first volume was released in 1884, but James A.H. Murray and the Philological Society were very aware that they had only scratched the surface of their endeavor to catalog the English language. Murray was joined by a larger team of editors, and together, they continued to produce "fasciles" (the term for sections of the dictionary) for the next few decades.

Published letter by letter, the dictionary wasn't fully finished until 1928. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles contained 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes.

But the corpus (body) of a dictionary is never complete. The editors continued to work on it, and a single-volume supplement was published in 1933. That same year, the entire catalog was republished in 12 volumes and given its current title, Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Realizing that the dictionary couldn't sustain itself on the multitude of supplemental volumes needed to adapt to an ever-changing language, OUP took the leap to begin digitizing the dictionary in 1983 and combining the supplemental volumes. Once the OED went online in 2000, the editors began a process to complete a revised third edition of the dictionary, estimating its completion in 2037.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Across the pond in the United States, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. After 20 years spent studying 26 languages, Webster released his full comprehensive American English dictionary of more than 70,000 words, An American Dictionary of the English Language.

Most notably, Webster's dictionary began the process of converting what he considered unnecessarily complex spellings into American English. "Colour" became "color," "centre" became "center," and "waggon" became "wagon." After Webster's death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam secured the rights to Webster's dictionary. Through a tedious process of expanding and editing, George Merriam published his revision as Webster's International in 1890.

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is now in its 11th edition, with a fully accessible dictionary and thesaurus available for free online.

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