A qui­etly in­trigu­ing col­umn from QI. This week: Dic­tio­nar­ies

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Living -

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.

The Com­plete First Se­ries of QI is avail­able on DVD at www.qi.com/dvd.

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