Tracing the 500-Year History of the English Dictionary

Samuel Johnson once joked in a letter that “dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” The pugnacious English lexicographer may not be a well-known name, but he casts a long shadow on the current definitions of many words in this article. Hardly Harmless Drudgery: Landmarks in English Lexicography, a fascinating exhibition on view on the first floor of the Grolier Club in Manhattan, presents a detailed 500-year timeline of the dictionary’s evolution and its inevitable deconstruction with holdings from several book collectors.

This expansive exhibition of 171 books begins with Renaissance glossaries. These forerunners did not set out to define every known word. Instead, they set a narrower goal of annotating technical terms circulating in particular professions.

53703025818 ff1eeda941 k
Installation view of Hardly Harmless Drudgery: Landmarks in English Lexicography at the Grolier Club

The following cases in the exhibition chronicle the slow but steady rise of comprehensive English language dictionaries during the Enlightenment. Rivalries and pedantic snickering often marred these dictionaries, especially in the 19th century. To be fair, these lexicographers were in a double bind, fearing accusations of plagiarism and copyright infringement if entries were too similar, and anticipating vitriol if new definitions went too far and challenged earlier work.

In 1829, for instance, lexicographer Noah Webster flew into a rage, complaining that revisions of his work made him look “like someone who had written a first draft of a book with inconsistent and half-baked ideas, requiring experts to come in, clean up the mess, and make it fit for publication.” Although the differences were minute, there was market share to defend — as well as pride. As Jack Lynch, professor of English at Rutgers University and co-curator of the exhibition, explained to Hyperallergic, “Noah Webster is a fascinating figure: an American patriot who just missed fighting in the Revolution and a brilliant definer — but also a bad-tempered grouch with the worst business instincts in America. Still, he and the Merriams established the most enduring dictionary franchise in history.”

53702792101 18889332fc k
Sheet of 4¢ U.S. postage stamps featuring Noah Webster (1958) (image courtesy the Grolier Club)
53703126384 e84d1a6724 k 2
Noah Webster, The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, edited by George W. Ogilvie (1907–08)

By the end of the 19th century, academics began to tire of clashing egos, and work began on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Prepared by a team working on a consensus model, this dictionary was an overdue correction; an early version is on view in the exhibition.

In some ways, this show resists art world sensibilities: Artists have jabbed at dictionary definitions like a piñata at a party for at least a couple of decades. In 1966, for instance, when Pierre Cabanne asked him to define “intelligence,” Marcel Duchamp irritably retorted that “there is something like an explosion of meaning in certain words: They have a greater value than their meaning in the dictionary.” Nevertheless, contemporary artists who work with words may find a well of inspiration in the dictionary debates if they dip their buckets in.

53703248115 c0b6d9e12b k
Ann Fisher, An Accurate New Spelling Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language (1773)
century dictionary cropped
William Dwight Whitney, The Century Dictionary and Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language (1914) (photo Daniel Larkin/Hyperallergic)

The contemporary influence of even these historical dictionaries is inestimable. In the past five years, according to the exhibition catalog, more than 40% of Supreme Court decisions drew upon definitions from early American dictionaries to elucidate laws.

Contemporary lexicographers are beginning to exact their influence, too. The exhibition ends by showcasing late-20th-century writers who sought to unsettle the most powerful names in dictionaries by creating their own versions with renegade words, biting definitions, and outsider vantage points — in other words, dictionaries that aren’t pale, male, and stale. The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (1972), A Feminist Dictionary (1985), and A Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970) remind us of all words that dance on the margins. One important book, however, is missing: The Oxford University Press is currently in the finishing stages of a new 1,000-word dictionary of African-American English, edited by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. Next year, it will showcase the profound impact of Black creativity on American English, tracing the etymology of several familiar words and terms such as “cool,” “shout out,” and “cakewalk.”

Duchamp was wrong — dictionaries and their definitions can be explosive. After contextualizing the English dictionary’s history, the final section is a powerful call to action.

Queens Vernacular 2
A page from The Queen’s Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (Straight Arrow Books, 1972) (photo Daniel Larkin/Hyperallergic)
IMG 5550
15th-century German manuscript leaf from a Latin wordlist, containing words from canon law (photo Daniel Larkin/Hyperallergic)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top