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Dictionaries – Bo-o-o-ring?

Boring: adjective (circa 1841): causing boredom; tiresome; lacking interest. Noun: boredom. The exact origin is unclear, but it may have arisen as a figurative extension of the slow, plodding way a hole-boring tool moves.

Now to me, even this tidbit is interesting. Was it one person who made that "figurative extension?" Who was the first person to say, "This is so boring," while picturing a hole-boring tool? How did it catch on?

Dictionaries, those trusty, reliable, useful, under-appreciated friends, have gotten something of a bad rap. Boring intellectuals in TV comedy shows read dictionaries for fun (as if that were a bad thing). Most dictionaries are online now, though the old-school among us still like the heft of the big book. Online dictionaries are easier to access and easier to update (with new words like bot, cisgender, decarceration and unfriend, and old words getting new, officially recognized meanings, like cancel and woke). Dictionaries, as well as defining words, capture cultural changes reflected in language. But the subject of dictionaries is still boring, right? Nope. The history of dictionaries is pretty cool. Let's have a look.

The word dictionary itself, first used in around 1200, derives, like many words in English, from Latin, the Latin word here being dictionarium, meaning "a collection of words or phrases." The Latin dict means to speak, and so we also get the words dictate, dictum, contradict, dictator, edict and predict. The Greeks in the first century CE may have been the first to compile a compendium of words and meanings (though some researchers think they may have found a kind of earlier Sumerian cuneiform dictionary). The purpose of the Greek compendium was to show changes in word meanings that had occurred over time. This in itself is interesting; their word compendium captured cultural changes just as modern dictionaries do.

The first English dictionary is credited to schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey, who used lists published in educational texts written for schoolroom use. Cawdrey did not intend his compendium to be comprehensive. He focused on defining words that he thought the general public found hard to understand. A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, included 3,000 words.

Samuel Johnson, who made lasting contributions to the English language as a poet, playwright and essayist, was a failed schoolteacher whose strange tics and outbursts, probably due to Tourette's Syndrome, made him a bit of an outcast. He struggled as a writer, and perhaps for that reason, accepted the invitation of bookseller Robert Dodsley to compile a definitive English dictionary. This undertaking was very successful. Johnson is considered the father of the modern English dictionary. His A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, is still revered by lexicographers. It wasn't the first English dictionary – more than twenty others had appeared since the 1300's – but it was the most comprehensive, and it introduced principles still in use today. Before publishing the dictionary, Johnson in 1747 published his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, in which he announced his ambitions to rationalize and standardize spellings (which were all over the map at that time), trace etymologies, offer guidance on pronunciation and "preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom." Interestingly, Johnson's conservative desire to standardize and "fix" the language, understandable at a time of wildly diverse spellings (and still a very good idea), has to some extent given way to a competing vision that sees one of dictionaries' central purposes as documenting "what's out there," capturing the increasingly rapid cultural changes expressed in language. Johnson could not have foreseen the rate at which new words would enter the lexicon in the wake of the internet, social media and political and cultural movements like wokism. Johnson's dictionary contained 443,500 words. That is pretty respectable, compared to the current unabridged Oxford Dictionary online which contains 600,000 words and the new Webster's Unabridged, with 470,000.

Noah Webster was a lexicographer (as well as a lawyer, schoolteacher, author, newspaper editor and politician) who published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806, followed by An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Webster wrote not long after the American Revolution, a time when American English was diverging from British English in many ways. Webster sought to promote American values and national identity through a dictionary that captured American usage, spelling and pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary was first published in 1895. Since its earliest versions it has aimed to be a historical dictionary, the "ultimate authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium," listing meanings for words in historical order, starting with the earliest recorded use. The word "nice," for instance, was used in the 13th century to mean "foolish," and this meaning is listed first in the Oxford. This goal itself (and not just British spellings) distinguishes it from Webster. British history versus American independence and pride: it is fascinating to see that as well as capturing the cultural changes reflected in words, dictionaries themselves are cultural artifacts.

Oh, there is so much more to say! I thought we would have time to talk about the thesaurus, too (from the Greek, thēsauros, meaning "treasury" or "storehouse" – isn’t that lovely?). Its goal is quite different from that of dictionaries. But alas, no. Perhaps another time.

Adieu, my friends, adios, dasvidanya, lehitra'ot, auf Wiedersehen, arrivederci. Don't you just love words, and their stories?

Till next time.

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