The first single-language English dictionary was published in 1604 by a man named Robert Cawdrey. Back then it was known as the “Table Alphabeticall.” Cawdrey was a teacher in England with a great interest in literature, science, medicine, and the arts. This was a time when the English language was growing and was greatly affected by trade, travel, and innovations in the fields of arts and sciences. Cawdrey, through 'Table Alphabeticall', attempted to introduce some hard and complicated words to the general public and wanted the English language to be better organized.
The book had around 3,000 words but had no words beginning with J, K, U, W, X, or Y. A copy of this dictionary can still be found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
2. The first genuinely reliable modern dictionary
The foundations for modern dictionaries were laid by the great 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson. He is renowned for having published the first genuinely reliable modern dictionary back in 1755 called ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’. It was so well-received that it became the standard dictionary for countless people for more than a century.
The dictionary took over eight years to compile, contained 40,000 words, and required the assistance of six helpers to complete. Samuel also used over 114,000 quotations in the dictionary – a method that considerably impacted the style of future dictionaries.
3. The longest word
At a whopping 45 letters, the picture above shows the longest English word that generally appears in major dictionaries, and the real question is, can you pronounce it? It was created in 1935 by the president of the American National Puzzlers’ League. This is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs and is basically an exaggerated version of silicosis. While this tongue-twister of a word has found its way across most dictionaries, it isn’t taken seriously and is generally considered pointless as it was primarily made up to get the title of the longest English word.
4. The longest “non-coined, non-medical, non-technical” word
While the previous contestant may have taken the honor for the longest English word, the longest “non-coined, non-technical” word in most dictionaries is “antidisestablishmentarianism”. Defined as “opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England”, the 28-letter word became famous when a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore correctly spelled it on ‘The $64,000 Question’, an American game show, back in 1955.
5. Early English dictionaries contained no simple words
Yes, we all surf dictionaries from time to time to find the meaning of tough or complicated words. However, they are also filled with even the simplest of words – from ‘apple’ to ‘zebra’. There was a time, though, when English dictionaries contained no simple or common words. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the English language doubled its vocabulary by including words from other languages, primarily because of the Renaissance's classical influence. The words would often be completely alien to the common public and would be so difficult to comprehend that they had to refer to word lists to understand them.
Cawdrey’s ‘A Table Alphabeticall’ was also a similar dictionary and after its success, many other English men too began publishing 'hard word’ dictionaries throughout the 17th century. These dictionaries would explain in simple form many of the weird and hard words which entered English over the previous decades.
6. The Oxford English Dictionary took almost 50 years to complete
The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most respected and widely used dictionaries in the world today. But do you know that it took the effort of almost half a century to create it? In 1857, the Philological Society of London called for an exhausting and thorough English language dictionary since the current ones then were considered insufficient and imperfect. The project was ambitious and was also to include words from the 12th century to the present. The Philological Society joined forces with Oxford University Press in 1879 and work finally began on this challenging venture.
The first part of the dictionary (A to Ant) was published in 1884 by Oxford University Press and the final volume came years later in 1928. The book was called ‘A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles’ and listed more than 400,000 words and phrases.
7. The dictionary also included “fake” words
Over the centuries, a bunch of fake words appeared in dictionaries. For example, the word ‘phantomnation’, which showed up in an 1864 edition of Webster's, was the result of a missing hyphen. Then, in 1934, Webster’s New International Dictionary included a word called ‘dord’ which was defined as density, the result of confusion over spacing. However, it was originally intended to be an abbreviation and accidentally made its way into the word section. Curiously, the word dord remained in dictionaries for five years before the error was finally noticed and rectified.
8. Weird dictionaries
Most of us are aware of the common and popular dictionaries out there like Oxford’s, Webster's, and Dictionary.com. But do you know that there are a handful of unusual and outright bizarre dictionaries out there too? For instance, ‘Wye's Dictionary Of Improbable Words: All-Vowel Words And All-Consonant Words’ helps you find some uncommon words that you wouldn’t have heard before. Then there is ‘Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words’ which, as the name suggests, consists of weird and unusual words that have been found in at least one dictionary in the past, such as cuggermugger which means whispered gossiping. If these don't satisfy your urge for oddities, you can even try some rhyming dictionaries or reverse dictionaries.
9. Who decides what word will be included in a dictionary?
Have you ever wondered who decides which fancy new words are to be included in a dictionary? Do solemn-looking lexicographers gather every year for a serious meeting and then choose the words they deem fit to be released to the public? Not quite.
The condition for including a new word in a dictionary varies from one to the other and also depends on the publishing house. Generally, though, words are added or removed from a dictionary based on data. If a specific word is being used by a large number of people in a particular way or for a length of time, then it is added to a dictionary. Also, if a word has significant value in a specific field, such as medicine, then it is included in the dictionary.
10. Dictionaries do not contain all the words
A lot of us tend to assume that most dictionaries contain all the words in the language. This assumption has also fueled a belief that if some word is not defined in the dictionary then it isn’t a real word. This is not true at all. The fact is that there has never been and never will be a dictionary that will include all the words in the English language. Many words are often removed or omitted from a dictionary if they become obsolete and several others are excluded if they are not relevant to anyone but a specialist. For instance, most dictionaries avoid defining all of the known chemical compounds.
11. Dictionaries are all out of date
We must remember that language is constantly evolving and it is hence impossible for dictionaries to keep up the perfect pace. Dictionaries will therefore be always out of date. If dictionaries were completely up to date on all the newest words and phrases, they would have to record them the moment they began being used. This would eventually lead to reference works being overfull with short-lived words that are likely to be discarded in just five years from today.
As Samuel Johnson put it, “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”
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