The History of the Dictionary: The First Few Words

Dictionary_-_Louvre,_Near_Eastern_Antiquities_in_the_Louvre,_Room_3,_Case_15_-_AO_7661With the exception of the Bible or the Qur’an, dictionaries are the world’s most purchased books.

This essential spell checker and provider of word definitions that we recognise today hasn’t always been laid out in its current, familiar style. The evolution of the dictionary has been a long process, often complicated by the fact that words often have several meanings, and that many have had several different spellings.

Discovered in Ancient Ebla (now Syria), the oldest dictionaries ever found consist of wordlists on tablets, and date from approximately 2300BC. Many other wordlists and glossaries from the ancient world have been uncovered by archaeologists and historians. For example, the Canonical Babylonian originates from the 2nd millennium BC, there are a variety of Chinese Dictionaries dating from the 3rd century BC, and the Amarakosa (the first Sanskrit dictionary), was written in the 4th century BC.

By the 9th century, the first Irish dictionary, the Sanas Cormaic, had been compiled. Rather than being a simple word list like its predecessors, this contained explanations alongside each entry for over 1,400 Irish words.

As the medieval world developed, so did its literary history. By the 14th century, Arabic dictionaries were being organised according to the rhyming properties of each words last syllable. They were also put into alphabetical word order. This new system of using alphabetical ordering was quickly adopted by other dictionary compilers.

Across medieval Europe, word lists or glossaries were also growing in popularity. A Latin equivalent for every word was often given, such as in the Catholicon, which was put together by Johannes Balbus in 1287. This volume became the template for many later European dictionaries, including the bilingual Dictionarium complied by Ambrogio Calepino in 1502. Over the course of the 16th century this book was enlarged to become one of the earliest multilingual glossaries.

There are more words to be given over to this subject, but we shall look those up a lattle later…


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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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