The History of the Dictionary: Now in English!

Johnson_Dictionary2The word dictionary was invented by John of Garland in 1220, when he wrote a book called Dictionarius to help him with his Latin diction.

The earliest dictionaries in the English language were glossaries of French, Italian or Latin words, along with definitions of those foreign words. Ordered via subject rather than alphabetically, these books often consisted of basic wordlists, such as the Elementarie (created by Richard Mulcaster in 1592), which contained 8000 English words.

It wasn’t until 1604 that the first English alphabetical dictionary was written. The Table Alphabeticall was compiled by Robert Cawdrey, a schoolteacher in 1604.  Although this was a breakthrough in the history of dictionary writing in the UK, it, and many of those that copied its style, were deemed unreliable. It was not until the celebrated A Dictionary of the English Language, compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1755, that a reliable English Dictionary was produced. As Johnson combined not just alphabetical ordering and definitions, but also textual references for most words, his masterwork was soon judged to be the first ‘modern’ dictionary.

For over 150 years, Johnson’s Dictionary remained the English-language standard. It wasn’t until the Oxford University Press began to produce its first Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 (a process that took nearly 50 years to complete), that Johnson’s work took a back seat.

When it was released in 12 separate volumes in 1928, the Oxford English Dictionary quickly became the most comprehensive and trusted English language dictionary. To this day, the OED remains the most purchased dictionary in Britain, with fresh revisions and updates added by a dedicated team of lexicographers every three months.


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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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