On Dictionaries

The ever-changing role of the lexicographer

What do you think he means by Zip?' 'I don't know,' said Mr. Wartle; 'let's look it up in the dictionary.'

This scrap of dialogue, from Mr. W. L. George's Caliban, arrested my attention, as illustrating what are perhaps the two most characteristic things about dictionaries—their supposed omniscience and their ubiquity. There is something touching in Mr. Wartle's childlike confidence that the dictionary, like photography, cannot lie. He does not express a wish to consult the Oxford Dictionary, or the Century Dictionary, or the latest edition of Webster, in which he might reasonably expect to find the history and meaning of a word traced with erudition and competence. 'The dictionary' is good enough for him, and what the dictionary says, goes. It is true that even the great Dr. Johnson defined the word pastern as 'the knee of an horse,' an anatomical inexactitude which would produce on an ostler the same kind of paralytic shock that a sailor might experience on finding in the same famous work leeward and windward described in identical terms as 'toward the wind.' But, fortunately for lexicographers, those who consult the dictionary are not usually critical. In fact, almost the only individual to approach the sacred book in the spirit of a doubter is the lexicographer himself, who knows by the sad experience of his own misdoings how easily a mistaken explanation, an incorrect form, or even a non-existent word may be handed down from one compiler to another.

Look up in any of the widely used dictionaries which claim to give etymologies the word syllabus and you will find it derived from the Greek sullambanein, to take together. This sounds a reasonable explanation, and syllabus is now a word we should be sorry to lose, but it is really a ghost and has no more to do with the aforesaid Greek word than with syllabub. It is simply a mistake in early printed editions of Cicero's Letters to Atticus for sittubas, the plural of the Greek sittuba, a parchment contents-label attached to a manuscript. So much for omniscience. It may be concluded that the earnest inquirer into words would be well advised to believe only what he finds in the Oxford Dictionary—and not always that.

As to the ubiquity of the dictionary there can be no question. Within the memory of the oldest now alive there have been few houses—at least of those possessing any books at all—whose library has not included an out-of-date Barclay, an obsolete abridgment of Johnson, an early Webster, or some equally useful misleader of the mind that thirsts for information. ;It was not always thus, for 'the dictionary,' as we understand the word, is a comparatively modern element in life. Dictionarium is not a classical Latin word, any more than lexicon is classical Greek. To the mediaeval scholar a dictionary was a collection of ‘dictions’ or phrases, put together for the use of pupils studying Latin. We find dictionarius first used in this sense in the thirteenth century by an Englishman, John Garland, and dictionarium in the fourteenth; but the first work published in England under the English title 'Dictionary' was the famous Latin-English Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot which appeared in 1588, the year before Robert Estienne, of the greatest of all dictionary-making dynasties, published his Dictionnaire François-Latin. The word Lexicon—the neuter of the Greek adjective lexicos, 'relating to words'—dates in its accepted current sense from the Renaissance only.

The earliest lexicographical efforts were probably made by Roman students of the Greek language and culture. We are told that Cato learned Greek at eighty, a task which he would hardly have tackled without realizing the importance of tabulating his newly acquired vocabulary. Teachers naturally compiled lists of words and phrases for the use of their pupils, and such vocabularies would be copied and attain some circulation; but it is obvious that what we call a dictionary was made possible only by the invention of printing.

If we restrict our attention to England, we find that all our early glossaries explain the vernacular by Latin, or what in the Middle Ages passed for Latin. Such vocabularies were in fact compiled to help grammar-school boys to acquire a knowledge of the only general means of communication possessed by the learned. Although, as we have seen, the words dictionarius and dictionarium occur, most compilers use more fanciful titles, such as the Ortus Vocabularum, 'the garden of words'; the Promptorium Parvulorum, 'the storehouse of the little clerks,' of which many editions were afterwards printed by Wynkyn de Worde; or the Catholicon Anglicum, 'the English universal remedy.' These are perhaps the three most comprehensive, but we have a host of smaller compilations. In these the order, instead of being alphabetical, is usually classifactory, that is, the words are arranged in parts of speech, or, more frequently, under such headings as kitchen implements, garments, diseases, musical instruments, birds, animals, and so on. Later on, when in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Latin-English dictionaries aiming at some completeness become numerous, we still find subsections devoted to such headings as herbs, trees, precious stones, names of hawks, names of hounds, and so forth, and in the earliest the mediaeval arrangement of the English before the Latin is usually preserved. The practice of giving fanciful names to dictionaries did not die out until well on in the eighteenth century. A favorite title, both in England and abroad, was gazophylacium, that is, treasure-house, or more commonly, thesaurus—a name still borne by well-known publications. Florio's famous Italian-English Dictionary of 1598 was called a Worlde of Wordes, a title adopted later by Phillips for his large English Dictionary. Glossographia is another description used by seventeenth century lexicographers.


The dictionary-makers of the Middle Ages aimed at teaching Latin and would have been amused at any suggestion that their own native English was worthy of attention. But the introduction of printing, the spread of learning, the diffusion of a noble literature, and closer contact with foreign influences had such an effect on the language that it became a subject not only worthy of study, but also involving difficulties and obscurities which cried aloud for elucidation. As Mr. John Drinkwater has lately written: 'The English language was, to cultured Elizabethans, like a new-found and wonderful inheritance. And they reveled in it, they sported with it in every conceivable way.' And so the dictionary came into existence, like other novelties, to supply a long-felt want.

Its beginnings were modest. Until the eighteenth century no lexicographer aimed at completeness. His object was to explain the more difficult words in the language. Nowadays every dictionary contains, no doubt inevitably, nineteen twentieths or perhaps ninety-nine hundredths of unnecessary matter. Who, for instance, wants to know that a dog is a 'well-known domestic quadruped,' that twenty is 'twice ten,' that a hell is 'a hollow body of cast metal, formed to ring, or emit a clear musical sound, by the sonorous vibration of its entire circumference, when struck by a clapper, hammer, or other appliance'? The last of these definitions, as will be guessed from its explicit clarity, is from the great Oxford Dictionary, which also tells us that to kiss is 'to press or touch with the lips (at the same time compressing and then separating them), in token of affection or greeting, or as an act of reverence' a piece of erudition usually acquired by the youngest and least experienced without lexicographical help. Probably not a hundredth part of the dictionary is ever used by any individual reader; but as the compiler cannot expect everyone to need the same fraction of his work, he is obliged to put in everything, and even to cater for the eager student who is uncertain whether a dog may not be a centipede.

The first in date of our English lexicographers is Dr. John Bullokar, who published in 1616 An English Expositour teaching the Interpretation of the hardest Words used in our Language with sundry Explications, Descriptions and Discourses. The eighth edition (1688) of this tiny book, lying before me, is enriched with 'a new and copious Supply of words,' 'an Index directing to the hard Words by prefixing the common Words before them in an Alphabetical Order,' and 'a brief Nomenclator, containing the names of the most renowned Persons among the Ancients, whether Gods or Goddesses (so reputed), Heroes, or Inventors of profitable Arts, Sciences and Faculties. With divers memorable Things out of ancient History, Poetry, Philosophy, and Geography.' Although the format, even of this enlarged edition, is such as to fit easily into a waistcoat pocket, it is described as an 'Expositour or Compleat Dictionary,' and it has the characteristics which distinguish the lexicographical attempts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, namely, the conception of a dictionary as a sort of encyclopaedia, insistence on the fullness of its vocabulary, and an evident leaning toward that Latinized jargon which for a time threatened to submerge plain English. A benevolent preface ends with the comforting words: 'Live long, industrious Reader, advance in Knowledge and be happy.'

Next to Bullokar, in fact, in the following year (1617), comes one of the most extraordinary works in the history of lexicography, Minsheu's Ductor in Linguas or Guide into the Tongues, a full dictionary, explanatory and etymological, of the English language, with meanings in ten other languages. This is the first English etymological dictionary and also the first English work to appear with a list of subscribers. Minsheu was an impecunious teacher of languages and, in Ben Jonson's opinion, a rogue. He compiled his great work with the assistance of a 'company of certain schollers and strangers at mine owne charge,' with whom he made descents on Oxford and Cambridge to collect material and enlist subscribers. We can imagine that his ‘strangers’ were rather a tatterdemalion, hungry-looking crew, and we have his own statement that the task of supporting them had involved him in ‘great debtes, unpossible for me ever to pay.’ I should like to know more about Minsheu. He seems to have led an adventurous life abroad, wandering for long years from land to land in his eager quest for linguistic knowledge. He may have been a rogue, but he was certainly an enthusiast, and one is glad to know that his monumental work reached a second edition, though I doubt whether he or his benevolent backers of the Inns of Court ever reaped much pecuniary advantage from it. The polyglot character of his work was no doubt due to the example of Ambrosio Calepino, or, as he was usually called by the learned, Calepinus, whose Latin Dictionary, first published at the beginning of the seventeenth century, was elaborated in successive editions into a polyglot dictionary of nine—and later of eleven—languages, its most ambitious development appearing a few years before Minsheu's. This lexicographer had the unusual experience of becoming a word himself. In seventeenth-century French the verb calepiner meant to interpret words, and calepin is still used of a memorandum book or vade mecum.

I have lingered over Minsheu because he was no mere lexicographer, but a devoted word-hunter. His great folio is still consulted by serious philologists, and though many of his etymologies are comic, he often anticipates the conclusions of the most erudite modern research. I may instance his derivation of dismal from Latin dies mali, unpropitious days, derided by Trench, but now known to be substantially correct, and his intelligent conjecture that the much discussed word yeoman 'seemeth to be one word made by contraction of yong man,' an etymology quite recently revived—July 1921—by the Oxford Dictionary.

But Minsheu does not belong to the series of explanatory English dictionaries compiled for the use of the not very literate public of the age. The real successor to Bullokar is Cockeram, whose English Dictionarie or Interpreter of hard English words (1623) proposed to assist 'the more speedy Attaining of an Elegant Perfection of the English Tongue' by 'Ladies and Gentlewomen, young Schollers, Clarkes, Merchantes, as also Strangers of any Nation.' For a long time successive editions of Bullokar's and Cockeram's diminutive volumes ran neck-and-neck in competition for public favor, like the more ponderous productions of Webster and Worcester in the United States during the nineteenth century.

A more interesting work is the Glossographia or Dictionary interpreting all such hard words whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Teutonick, Belgick, British or Saxon, as are now used in our refined Tongue. . . .Very useful for all such as desire to understand what they read, by T. B., that is, Thomas Blount, of the Inner Temple. This very valuable little glossary, 'chiefly intended for the more-knowing Women and less-knowing Men,' gives a very good idea of the way in which seventeenth century English was being flooded with foreign and learned neologisms, so that even the author himself was, as he says, 'often gravelled in English books.' Significant of the change taking place in the vocabulary is the author's statement that he has in a great measure shun'd the old Saxon words, as finding them growing every day more obsolete than ever.' The age is approaching when Dr.Johnson will define network as 'anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections,' or will modify his hasty statement that Buckingham's comedy, the Rehearsal, had not 'wit enough to keep it sweet,' with the corrected version: 'It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction.' It may be noted that Blount is our first authority for the sense we now give to classic and classical and also for theghost-word, syllabus.

Blount was followed by Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips, whose New World of Words or a General English Dictionary (1678) is on a much larger scale than those of his predecessors and is sometimes regarded as the first English dictionary in the modern sense. I note, however, that while it elucidates the dog days, it still refrains from telling us what a dog is, though Blount, who accused Phillips of plundering his own work, reproaches him with his 'needless explication of many trivial words.' Phillips's book was reëdited many times by John Kersey, an industrious lexicographer, who seems to have turned out dictionaries in the eighteenth century as untiringly as did Noah Webster in the nineteenth. In the seventh edition (1720) I find to my great solace and comfort the entry, dog, 'a well-known creature,' a somewhat meagre definition, improved into 'a quadruped well-known' by Nathaniel Bailey, whose dictionary, first published in octavo (1721), ran through a very large number of editions and became the standard authority until superseded by Johnson.

In 1730 Bailey published his large folio edition, which omits all proper names, mythology, and so on, and is the first example of a complete dictionary as we understand the word. Bailey, like many dictionary-makers, was a schoolmaster. At the end of the preface we find: 'N.B. Youth boarded and taught the Latin, Greek and Hebrew Languages, Writing, Accounts and other parts of School Learning, in a Method more easy and expeditious than is common; by the Author, at his House in Stepney, near the Church.' It was an interleaved folio Bailey that was used by Johnson as the basis of his own great work.


I have mentioned only a select few of the numerous dictionaries published between Bullokar and Johnson. I have most of them within reach as I write, and, as I turn from one to the other, I observe that the dictionary-making animal has certain unvarying peculiarities. He is as irritable as a poet and as full of his own importance as a film star. He accuses his predecessors of incompetency and his contemporaries and successors of plagiarism. Blount points out derisively that Phillips, in his account of rosemary, says nothing of 'the singular use of it in adorning a piece of roast beef,' which hardly seems to us a very serious omission. Elisha Coles, who published in 1676 a small dictionary which sold freely for more than half a century, rejects all previous performances as either 'too little or too big.' The author of a Glossographica Anglicana Nova, which appeared in 1707, sums up all three of these lexicographers as follows:—

Blunt [i.e. Blount] went a-simpling in a Field twenty Years without discovering many new Plants, which had been pardonable in him, had he given us the true Names, and not been mistaken in the Description, Vertues and Qualities of several of the old. Phillips to whose laudable industry we owe a much more bulky Performance was no better qualified for paving a way to any one of the Sciences, having neither Skill, Tools, nor Materials: so that Cole, after all, with his few Pretences has as much real worth as any of the former, and may make good the part of a Guide to Tradesmen and illiterate Readers.

This very superior gentleman apparently aspires to higher flights than predecessors, who, far from claiming to instruct the learned, persistently emphasize the fact that they cater for the class intermediate between the educated man and the illiterate peasant, a class defined on one title page as consisting of 'Young Scholars, Tradesmen, Artificers and the female Sex,' on another as 'Ladies who have a turn for Reading and Gentlemen of no learned Profession.'

Naturally each lexicographer proclaims his own wares to be superior to all others. This leads to the title page gradually expanding into a kind of pamphlet, which combines an encyclopaedic summary of polite learning with something like a museum catalogue. Occasionally the serene consciousness of absolute superiority makes the elaborate title-page unnecessary. In 1753 a small dictionary was published anonymously by John Wesley. Admirers of that great and good man will note without surprise that his comparatively modest title page ends with: ‘NB. The Author assures you he thinks this is the best English Dictionary in the world.’

That lexicographers should copy from one another is inevitable. Many a ghost-word due to a seventeenth century misprint still gibbers at us from the mote ambitious dictionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sometimes, even—as in the case of syllabus—the ghost-word has acquired flesh and bones and become a respectable citizen of the world of words. In 1761 Daniel Penning published his Royal English Dictionary, inscribed to George III. His dedication may be called John Bull-ish. 'Proud of the honour of being an Englishman,' he points out that:—

The French, though now spoken in all the Courts of Europe, cannot lay claim either to the conciseness, purity or strength of expression to be found in the English; its softness may suit the disposition of those who are born slaves, but it is neither suitable to the free and manly sentiments of English Kings or English Subjects.

Fenning's is quite a good dictionary, but it accidentally omits the word uncle, an omission still unrectified in my 'improved third edition' of 1768. A close examination of the numerous English dictionaries published during the latter part of the century would show that some of the compilers carried their admiring trust in Penning so far as to imitate his reticence with regard to the word uncle.


Johnson's dictionary marks an entirely new departure. It is the work of a literary man, not of 'a harmless drudge'—his own definition of a lexicographer. It is selective in vocabulary and is the first dictionary in which the meanings of words are illustrated by quotations. It is also full of personality. We know that Johnson was of the opinion that the first Whig was the Devil, and accordingly we find the word Whig contemptuously dismissed as the 'name of a political faction,' while a Tory is described as 'one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the State and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England.' His gibe at the Scots in his definition of the word oat as 'a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,' was well answered by a Scot with: 'And where will you find such horses or such men?' There must have been a good deal of Boythornian summer lightning in the Doctor's vigorously expressed dislike for the Scots. Boswell slyly observes that five out of the six assistants who worked with the Doctor on the Dictionary were of Scottish origin, which suggests that Johnson, whatever his prejudices, knew a good thing when he saw one. Nor need we take much more seriously 'the implacable hatred of all things American,' on which Mr. Mencken dwells rather childishly. Not all modern readers would dissent from Johnson's definition of patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel.' That of a pension as 'an allowance made to anyone without an equivalent; in England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country' is a wee bit strong. Still stronger was his projected note to renegado. 'You know, Sir,' said he to Boswell, 'Lord Gower forsook the old Jacobite interest. When I came to the word renegado, after telling that it meant one who deserts to the enemy, a revolter, I added, "Sometimes we say, a Gower." Thus it went to the press: but the printer had more wit than I and struck it out.'

The most famous of all his definitions is perhaps excise, 'a hateful tax levied on commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,' which—leaving out the 'commodities'—would represent with some correctness what the downtrodden English bourgeois of to-day is beginning to feel about the income tax. One would give a good deal to have Dr. Johnson's definition of a Bolshevist.

When his friend Adams pointed out that the forty French Academicians had taken forty years to accomplish what Johnson proposed to do by himself in three, the Doctor answered: 'Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman'—another Boythorn outburst which only a pedant would censure.

Like most interesting people, Johnson was an unexpected and rather volcanic mixture. A lady, who simperingly congratulated him on his omission of all indecent words from the Dictionary, was met with the truly Johnsonian retort: 'So you have been looking for them, Madam?'

But it is not only the anecdotic side of his Dictionary that appeals to the student of English. The seventeenth century had what we now know to be a completely mistaken conception of language. Men of learning and the educated classes in general had come to believe that the language of their time had reached an ideal perfection, like that of classical Latin, and only required a little pruning and purifying at the hands of the lexicographer in order to become permanent and unchanging. This fantastic delusion first appears in Italy, where the academia della Crusca—that is, of the bran—took upon itself to sift the language and publish the accepted residue in its Vocabolario (161). I am told that the State subvention for the production of successive editions of this remarkable work has only just been withdrawn under the Fascist régime. I have already mentioned the forty French Academicians who, according to Howell, 'used to meet every Munday to refine and garble [that is, to sift] the French language of all pedantic and old words, as also of some superfluous consonants, and put such another dictionary to light as Crusca in Italy,' and who, in doing the letter A, remembered the word Académie only in time to slip it in at the last moment.

We now know that the duty of the lexicographer is to record and not to criticize, that refined speech and elegant speech are the delusions of a mistaken optimism, and that the only people who now speak English with any approach to historical correctness are the few surviving agricultural laborers who are old enough to have escaped the devastating effects of the Elementary Education Act. Johnson's Dictionary went far to accomplish, in the eighteenth century, what the Italian and French Academies had unsuccessfully attempted in the seventeenth. It is, of course, as hopeless for the lexicographer to try to stem the flowing tide of new words and expressions as it was for Mrs. Partington to keep out the Atlantic with a mop, but Johnson's authority was so unparalleled that Boswell's description of him as 'the man who had conferred stability on the language of his country' had, for some time at any rate, an element of truth.

Johnson himself was too wise to cherish the illusion of stability. In his Preface, so well worth reading, but so little read nowadays, he writes: —

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity and affectation. With this hope however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders: but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.

Johnson's unequaled influence in matters of form and sense may be illustrated by the two words conservancy and internecine. The first, which we use chiefly of the authority controlling the Thames fisheries, was earlier and correctly conservacy. Johnson accidentally inserted the n and the n has remained. The proper meaning of internecine is murderous, destructive. Johnson explains it as 'endeavouring mutual destruction,' and this is the sense present in the minds of most people when they read or write of 'internecine war.'

It is interesting to compare his two ponderous volumes, which his contemporaries thought final, with the gigantic mass-production dictionaries of modern times. Stated mathematically, it may be said that in vocabulary and amount of typographical matter the great Oxford Dictionary is to Johnson what the latter is to Bullokar's diminutive 'Expositour' of 1616. If we look up in a chronological series of dictionaries the pivotal word take, we shall find: (1) that no lexicographer before Bailey thinks its inclusion necessary; (2) that Bailey, in his folio edition, gives seventeen phrases illustrating the various senses of the word; (3) that Johnson catalogues no fewer than 134 of its uses in various combinations; (4) that the Century Dictionary devotes four pages to it and deals with it in thirty-five sections; (5) that the Oxford Dictionary handles it in thirteen of its vast and closely printed pages, with divisions and subdivisions which I decline to count, concluding with a long section explaining and illustrating fifty-two separate meanings, current or obsolete, of the locution 'to take up.' And the Oxford Dictionary is far from complete. You will search it in vain for aspidistra and appendicitis, boche and bolshevist, cinema and camouflage, decontrol and Dora, broadcasting and listening-in, bootlegging and dope-fiend, for a dictionary published to-day is almost out-of-date to-morrow.

Johnson's legislative attitude toward the words he includes is what we should expect from his stately conversational style. The monosyllabic or reduplicating word of native growth, without contact with Latin or Greek, meets with little favor. Swop is a 'low' word. Twittle-twattle, which in his day combined the senses now expressed by twaddle and tittle-tattle, is a 'vile word.' Wobble—which he spells wabble—is a 'low barbarous word.' Others of his 'low' words are the verbs to budge and to coax, and the adjective touchy. Archdeacon Todd, whose nineteenth century edition of Johnson held the field for some time against the competition of Webster, and later on, of Worcester and Richardson, seems to have felt himself so far the inheritor of the prophetic mantle as to be entitled to assume the same dictatorial attitude. Row, a disturbance, is branded by him as 'a very low expression' and chaperon as 'an affected word of very recent introduction.' Johnson himself shows an unexpected tenderness for dialect words, especially for those in use in his native Staffordshire. I will instance only lich, ‘a dead carcase, whence lichwake, the time or act of watching by the dead; lichgate, the gate through which the dead are carried to the grave; Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred Christians. Salve magna parens.'

Some of the most beautiful words in the language were nearly lost in the eighteenth century. In Bullokar's edition of 1688 I find, among many words marked as obsolescent: blithe, glee, lay (a song), lore, strand, weald, wold, wend and wreak. We owe much to Bishop Percy, to the early romantics, and perhaps most of all to Scott, for rescuing these lovely monosyllables, so rich in poetic suggestion. Johnson says of glee: 'It is not now used except in ludicrous writing, or with some mixture of irony or contempt.' It is strange to find him describing jeopardy as 'a word not now in use,' and to read under smouldering: 'This word seems to be a participle; but I know not whether the verb smoulder be in use.' The first statement is erroneous for jeopardy is used by many of the Doctor's contemporaries, but it is true that smoulder fell out of use in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The modern novelist, whose hero's eyes would lose half their effect if they did not periodically smoulder, should be grateful to Scott for reviving this expressive word.

The makers of dictionaries, as already remarked, have often been schoolmasters, and it must be remembered that Johnson himself, at the age of twenty-six, started 'keeping school' near Lichfield, though he soon realized the truth of the sage maxim that schoolmaster-ing is a very good profession—to get out of. Perhaps about as many have been country parsons, and I have a theory, based more upon impression than statistics, that the peaceful atmosphere of rural East Anglia has inspired an unusual number of clerical lexicographers. Nor is the medical profession unrepresented. Bullokar was a Chichester doctor and Stephen Skinner, the author of the first English etymological dictionary in the strict sense of the word, was a physician in practice at Lincoln. This work, published in 1671, a few years after the author's death, under the title, Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae, was Johnson's chief authority for the etymological part of his own dictionary. He used it uncritically, for he lacked altogether the etymological instinct and had the great disadvantage of knowing, as Macaulay says, 'little or nothing of any Teutonic language, except English, which indeed, as he wrote it, was scarcely a Teutonic language.'


It is in accordance with poetic justice that the great dictionary-makers of the age that followed Johnson should belong chiefly to the two races for which he a burlesque abhorrence, the Americans and the Scots. During the greater part of the nineteenth century no English dictionary enjoyed a prestige equal to that of Noah Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, which is still, in its most recent edition, a valuable authority. Webster produced no fewer than six dictionaries of various sizes, from his Compendious Dictionary of 1806 to his Dictionary for Primary Schools of 1834. His fellow countryman, Joseph E. Worcester, went one better with seven. Moreover, the greatest complete mass-production English dictionary is the American Century Dictionary, published in six volumes (1889-91) under the editorship of that distinguished philologist, William D. Whitney.

The noblest of all dictionaries is officially called the Oxford English Dictionary, but is more familiar to scholars all over the world as the 'New English Dictionary.' Based on thirty years' preliminary work undertaken by members of the Philological Society and their friends, it began to appear in sections of varying size in 1884, the first complete volume (A and B) being dated 1888. It will presumably be finished in another two years, as only parts of the letters U and W remain to be done, and it will then consist of ten colossal volumes, some of which can be conveniently 'hefted' only by a fairly athletic student. The first general editor of this great national work was the late Sir James Murray, who died full of years and honors in 1915, when occupied in the concluding sections of T.

An imaginary conversation between Boswell and Johnson was once composed—perhaps by Sir James Murray himself, for all the best stories against the Scotch are due to Scotsmen. The Doctor and his adoring biographer are strolling in the Elysian Fields, when Boswell asks: 'What would you say, Sir, if you were told that the task of editing the great English Dictionary which is to supersede all others had been entrusted by your own University of Oxford to a Scotch Presbyterian?' To which the Doctor replies: 'Sir, it is possible to be facetious without being indecent.'

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