Early Dictionaries & Glossaries


 The Shift Towards Semantics

The narrative of the history of English dictionaries usually follows a line starting with Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604), moving through Bullokar, Cockeram, Blount, Phillips, Kersey and Bailey, and ending with Johnson as both the apotheosis of early dictionary-making and the first modern English dictionary. The earliest dictionaries tended to concentrate on lexis, on 'hard words', and gave a simple explanation of their meaning. So, for example, Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1656) gives:

Mansuete (mansuetus) gentle, courteous, meek, mild, humble, tractable.
Mansuetude (
mansuetudo) gentleness, meekness, tractableness, humility.
Manticulate (manticulor) to do a thing closely, as to pick a purse.

The words selected for inclusion are generally either of Latinate origin or technical terms, deriving from specialised areas of knowledge such as law, medicine, botany, mathematics and the collection of these words in dictionaries was meant for the use of young scholars, clerks, foreigners and other who need help with the specialist vocabulary of the new learning, including women, rather than for general readers. The meanings are divided into separate senses, but no indication is given of the usage of these words. When, for example, did 'mansuete' mean 'courteous' and when did it mean 'humble'? Are there specialised domains for these meanings or not? It is impossible to tell from the definitions given by Blount.

The narrative of this history is confined to monolingual, non-specialised dictionaries and these early dictionaries are characterised as 'hard words' dictionaries because their wordlists are supposed to consist of highly Latinate, difficult words that perhaps were never really used in the general language. This view is strengthened by the belief that monolingual dictionaries grew and developed out of bilingual dictionaries, in particular Latin-English dictionaries, based on the observation that early dictionary-makers seem to have merely anglicized the lemmas and copied out the English entry as the definition. Johnson's Dictionary, on the other hand, includes common words, and notoriously some which are difficult to define in similarly common words, such as 'drier' defined as 'dessicative'. It has long been recognised that Johnson was not the first to include common words, since Kersey and Bailey did so before him, but there has been a sense that he was the first to do so in a systematic way and to apply the same careful standards of definition to these words as to 'hard words'.

There was a shift in emphasis in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries away from a focus on lexis, which had dominated linguistic thinking in the earlier part of the seventeenth century, and towards semantics, there being a new urgency about establishing unique and transparent meanings for words. This shift is reflected in the dictionaries which were produced: earlier dictionaries tend to be wordlists with minimal definitions, like the glossaries which they grew out of, and later dictionaries tend to pay increasing attention to careful delineation of senses. However, Jürgen Schäfer and Noel Osselton, among others, have cautioned against assuming that all early dictionary-makers were concerned only with 'hard words'. Osselton's discovery of an unknown lexicographer, whose partial manuscript of a dictionary he found in the Bodleian, shows that even the very earliest dictionaries might have contained such common words as 'apple' and 'ale', and Schäfer points out that Cawdrey's dictionary contains 'hard usuall words', an emphasis that is not often noted.

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