A quietly intriguing column from QI. This week: Dictionaries
The first English alphabetical dictionary was produced by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. Called A Table Alphabeticall, it only included 2,500 words. Alphabetical ordering was a rarity until the 18th century; before that, dictionaries or “word books for gentlemen” were mostly lists of obscure, fashionable or difficult words, to help their owners look smart and sophisticated.
Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published on April 15, 1755, was a landmark in scholarship. Its compiler was half-deaf, blind in one eye, scarred from scrofula, prone to melancholy and suffered from Tourette syndrome, but he managed to write 42,773 definitions in seven years, assisted only by a team of six copyists. The equivalent French dictionary took 40 scholars 55 years.
Johnson was paid £1,575 for a job he had originally planned to take three years. The dictionary cost £4 10 shillings (equivalent to £725 today) a copy when it appeared. This slowed sales down: it only shifted 6,000 copies in the first 30 years.
Johnson’s lexicographical standards remained unsurpassed until the Oxford English Dictionary started to appear in the 1880s. For example, he gave 134 different senses of the verb “to take”, which occupied five pages and used 8,000 words.
On the other hand, he had no words beginning with x and his etymologies were often dodgy, as in: “May not spider be spy dor, the insect that watches the dor?”
Some of Johnson’s now obsolete words deserve revival. They include: bibacious — addicted to drinking feculent — foul, excrementitious grum — sour, surly, severe keck — to heave the stomach; to retch at vomiting lusk — idle, lazy, worthless tonguepad — a great talker
In 1884, editor James Murray planned the first Oxford English Dictionary as a four-volume, 6,400 page work that he estimated would take about 10 years to write. Five years later, he and his tiny staff had only got as far as “ant”.
The early years were chaotic. Frederick Furnivall, the second editor, lost many of the original slips containing word definitions. Those for words beginning “Pa” appeared in a stable in County Cavan in Ireland, where they were being used to light fires.
The complete OED was published in 1928, 70 years after its inception and 44 years after the first volume was published.
The 1928 OED was based on about five million quotations from English literature submitted by volunteer readers, of which around 1,800,000 were included in print. One of the most famous “readers” was William Chester Minor, an inmate at Broadmoor mental asylum, whom editorMurray first believed to be a medical man or a warder. Minor stopped work in 1902 after cutting off his own penis in a fit of self-loathing.
The OED 2nd edition of 1989 contains definitions for more than 225,000 words. Merriam-Webster’s Third International Dictionary claims to define 450,000 English words. By contrast, there are fewer than 100,000 words in French.
The third edition of the OED was authorised in 1990 and started with the letter m. This is because previous revisions of the OED had begun with A, which meant that the earliest entries were the work of editors who hadn’t quite hit their stride.
The Brothers Grimm (of fairy tale fame) began their Deutsche Wörterbuch in 1838; it wasn’t fully finished until 1961, a staggering 123 years of painstaking work.
Holland’s Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, which claimed to be “the biggest dictionary in the world” took 147 years, finally reaching the printing press in 1998.
However, for a dictionary that has spanned three centuries you need to head north to Sweden. Its version of the OED, Svenska Akademiens Ordbok (or SAOB) had its first volume published in 1898 and is still not complete. The dictionary (from A-TILL, anyway) is now searchable on the net, and current estimates put the time of completion somewhere this year.
In 2000, Professor Hitoshi Kodama finished his 1,200-page JapaneseFriesian dictionary: the world’s first. Only two Japanese (one of them being Prof Kodama) are known to speak Friesian.
Next week: table tennis.
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