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A Translator’s Historical Review of Dictionaries and Their Eccentricities

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"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty,
"it means just what I choose it to
mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice,
"whether you can make words
mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty,
"which is to be master—that's all."

Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass

Although the major European countries have been prolific in bringing dictionaries to press since the early seventeenth century, dictionary production in the twentieth century has grown exponentially in all the major European languages. It is worth mentioning that although in the last two decades there have been revolutionary electronic innovations in format, searchability, presentation and design, in many fundamental respects monolingual general dictionaries produced today, whether in the United States or in Europe, are very similar to those of earlier centuries.

Sexism ... seems to be the hardest to eradicate from dictionary definitions.

As metalexicographer Henri Béjoint explains, their similarities are due to the common origins and parallel historical evolution—from the Renaissance to the present through the turning point of the 18th century—of the European peoples who wrote them. And they have remained virtually unchanged because their traditional form—their conservativism, their being "almost mythical emblems of learning"—exert a powerful influence on popular ideas of what they should continue to be.

The new electronic formats, however, may do away entirely with those entrenched lexicographical traditions. Powerful search engines, for example, obviate the need to alphabetize: Words can now be easily located even when grouped by sound, or by ideas, or concepts, or semantics, or domains, or endings, or etymologies, or collocations.... This field is called 'lexicography of encoding,' and it is perhaps a reaction against dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with their bias towards decoding literary texts.

As cultural artifacts, the political and sociological importance of dictionaries cannot be underestimated. Dictionaries tell us about immigration, assimilation, invasion, aggression, conflict, harmony, loss of innocence, isolationism, industrialization, discrimination. What John Ritchie, the fourth editor of The Australian Dictionary of Biography has said of his dictionary: "The entries throw light on the complexity of the human situation, and on the greatness and littleness of moral response and actual behaviour which this can evoke" holds true for all dictionaries, biographical or otherwise.

Because dictionaries are political, they are like lovers during war time; every so often one turns out to be a Mata Hari. To avoid betrayals, we must find out where they were born, when they were born, whom they were born to, what languages they speak, what ideology they preach, what sins they have committed, what peccadilloes, what indiscretions. Let's take a ride, then, on the surrey of language to explore the gene pool of dictionaries and get the gossip from their peers.

The Table Alphabeticall of 1604 is, by all accounts, the first monolingual English dictionary ever made. Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster from Oakham in Rutland (Coventry), wishing to make engaging the fair sex in conversation a trifle less trying, decided to write a 120-page book "[...] conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usual English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French. &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons." It contained 3,000 "hard words" that women and their ilk could utter in the salons of London and sound a little less dumb than they actually were.

If only Mr. Cawdrey had surrounded himself with the wrong kind of women! You know, the kind I am and hang out with: bitches, nags, wenches, hags, shrews, broads, babes, and chicks, we could have cleaned up his mess (my ilk can surely be trusted to do that). I say this because thanks to Simon Winchester's extraordinary The Meaning of Everything, I have the facsimile of Cawdrey's title page staring me in the face. Bobby Boy, for all his erudition, could not keep the spelling of "plaine English words" like "wordes" consistent.

In the wake of Cawdrey's dictionary—more a synonymicon than a true dictionary as Winchester points out—others were to follow. Patrick Galloway lists Bullokar's An English Expositour (1616) written for the benefit of the ignorant, Cockerams's English Dictionarie (1623) for the help of persons with little intellectual capacity, Blount's Glossographia (1656), Phillip's New World of English Words (1658), Cocker's English Dictionary (1704), and, finally, Nathan Bailey's two offerings, the Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721) and the Dictionarium Britannicum (1730).

From all these, Thomas Blount's Glossographia of 1656 is worth mentioning in detail. It was this man who started exploring the fantastic complexity of ordinary English used for special purposes. Blount, a barrister in Worcestershire, must have been extremely comfortable working with what we translators now term "the frozen language of the courts," and it must have been his familiarity with the peculiarities of legalese that made his book extraordinary: For the first time in the history of the English language, Blount's dictionary included terms (i.e., words specific to a trade or industry), not just words. Thus, he incorporated the jargon of tradesmen such as cooks and vintners, tailors, haberdashers, and shoemakers. And in publishing them Blount tells us not only about the technology of the day, but also that in order to communicate effectively, you have to know your field's jargon. And it was precisely that—specialized terminology defined—that this brilliant man gave the world. With a gift like that I think that we should ask St. Jerome to scoot over a little bit and share at least a corner of his desk with Tom.

And then the Age of Reason really kicked in. Exactly 99 years after Blount, and of many more efforts from men who tried to classify words, came The Dictionary. If you love Manhattan bookstores as I do, you have probably found yourself at the window of Bauman's Rare Books on Madison drooling over the wonderful first editions (1755) of Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary, the book that all educated households of the times possessed. This is the dictionary that set the standard for the following century—and perhaps for all time—of what an English dictionary should be.

In the Europe of the Age of Reason the Florentines had had their Accademia della Crusca since 1582—and their first dictionary Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca in 1612—and France's most feared Forty Immortals of the Académie française issued their first dictionary Le dictionnaire de l'Académie française in 1694, preserving the dignity and integrity of their languages by prescription. What made Dr Johnson's Dictionary special was that it was an English dictionary—and English was not then and is not now—a fixed language. Neither does it have an Academy that would want to do so1.

In addressing the question of Johnson's intentions regarding his Dictionary, Galloway tells us: "[...]we must first debunk one of many popular misconceptions held by the general public, as well as linguistic and literary scholars [...], namely that Johnson was trying to "fix" the English language. Indeed, while his original Plan of an English Dictionary of 1747 is full of prescriptive sentiment, indicating that he was determined to set English in stone once and for all, in fact, through the very process of writing the mighty tome, Johnson became far more modern in his awareness of language. While it was, no doubt, his personal dream to have his fellow Englishmen speak and write correctly, the lesson of his own dictionary taught him the difference between stability and stagnation, as well as imparting a deeper understanding of the living, fluid quality of his native tongue."

But it is always best to hear it from the horse's mouth. This is Johnson waxing eloquent in the 1775 preface to the Dictionary: 'Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design will require that I 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 that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.'

If one reads "The Dictionary" now, one finds Johnsonian eccentricities in abundance. There's the flippant 'Patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery,' the vitriolic 'Pension: An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country,' and the sobering 'Distiller: One who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits.' In addition, Winchester points us to the infamously political definition of 'Oats: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland feeds the people,' and to the libelous 'Excise: A hateful task levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.' But as a dog lover, my favorite Johnsonian definition happens to be concerned with the thoroughly English preoccupation with the state of mind of their beloved companions 'To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.'

We may chortle, but the Dictionary is not alone amidst its contemporaries when it comes to value judgments; the Diccionario de Autoridades of 1726 (of the Spanish Royal Academy) defines the letter 'A' as: 'A. the FIRST letter of the alphabet [...]. It is the first on the list of words because it is the one utterance taught to man by nature from the moment he is born to denote crying, and this is the first sign he gives of having been born; and although females also enunciate it, they do so with less clarity than the males, and its sound (as attested by experience) is more like an 'E' than an 'A' whereby females apparently make it known that they come into this world in lamentation about their first parents Adam and Eve.' [Trans:VA] ('A. PRIMERA letra del Alphabéto [...]. En el orden es la primera, pòrque es la que la naturaleza enseña al hombre desde el punto del nacer para denotar el llanto, que es la priméra señál que dá de haver nacído; y aunque tambien la pronuncia la hembra, no es con la claridád que el varón, y su sonido (como lo acredita la experiencia) tira mas à la E, que à la A, en que paréce dán à entendér, que entran en el mundo como lamentandose de sus priméros Padres Adán y Heva.')

Just for the sake of comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary—that most wonderful of dictionaries—while still under the editorship of the brilliant Dr James Murray (albeit more than a century after the issuing of the Diccionario de Autoridades) defined 'A' as follows: 'A: The first letter of the Roman Alphabet, and of its various subsequent modifications (as were its prototypes Alpha of the Greek and Aleph of the Phoenicians and Old Hebrew); representing originally in English, as in Latin, the 'low-back-wide' Vowel, formed with the widest opening of the jaws, pharynx and lips. The plural has been written aes, A's, As.' The first illustrative quotation comes from a fourteenth-century Northumbrian poem called A Pricke of Conscience by Richard Hampole.' What a difference a century makes in terms of approach!

The passage of time, lexicographical experience, and a better understanding of the immediate world of the lexicographer—one would think—would have eliminated value judgments and somewhat off-the-wall definitions from modern dictionaries. But it hasn't happened. And to that I say, at least occasionally, Dieu Merci, because one of my favorite dictionaries is the Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary. First published in 1901 under the industrious editorship of Thomas Davidson—and since been placed in equally capable editorial hands—it has earned a cult following due to its quirky and individualistic entries. Take, for instance, its slap-on-the-face definition of 'Middle-aged: between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner,' its deliciously gluttonous 'Éclaire: A cake, long in shape and short in duration' (penned by Liddell Geddie, one of its star lexicographers and former editor) and its whimsically patriotic 'Land O' the Leal: The home of the blessed after death—heaven, not Scotland.' You've gotta love these folks.

Chambers, in all its editions since 1901, has gotten away with throwing punches without losing credibility because all of its followers (me included) revere its editors' savvy, erudition, scholarliness, sense of humor, witticism, daring, and tongue-in-cheek panache. For all its quirkiness, Chambers never messes with definitions in any way that would detract from the true meanings of a word or term. What its editors do is make the life of all those of us who live by the written word a hell of a lot more fun. To all in Chambers, I say chapeau!

Not all value judgments in dictionaries are erudite, scholarly, humorous, witty or benign, however. Least edifying of all are entries incorporated into dictionaries during periods when intolerance rules supreme. The 1970 edition of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE), issued five years before Generalísimo Francisco Franco's death, is a case in point. Here's how the entry for Marxism reads: The doctrine of Karl Marx and his cronies (La doctrina de Carlos Marx y sus secuaces). And 'love'—in that same edition and continued through the 1983 issue of the DRAE—is defined strictly in heterosexual terms. It was not until very recently that the bias in these two definitions was expurgated.

Likewise, the 1972 edition of the Diccionario Durvan de la lengua española defines 'homosexual' as a 'sodomite,' and the only definition offered for 'bisexual' in a later edition (and for some mysterious reason, undated) on my shelves is 'hermaphrodite.' And the even more 'modern' 1995 edition of El Gran Diccionario de la Lengua Española, Diccionario de uso de la Sociedad General Española de Librería still persists in defining 'homosexual' as "sinónimo de invertido," which, when translated into English, may sound like it is an enlightened definition given the recent prestige of Queer Studies in Academia, but trust me—it is most certainly not a dictionary that keeps up with the times.

Sexism, however, seems to be the hardest to eradicate from dictionary definitions. I really recommend reading the paper by Dr Soledad de Andrés Castellanos чSexismo en la lexicografía española? aspectos positivos en el Diccionario del español actual de Seco, Andrés y Ramos (DEA99) where she praises its authors for having eliminated the third meaning of the DRAE92 of the feminine noun abogada, defined as: 'Informal': a lawyer's wife,' but adds that in the same entry of the DEA99 there were three quotes in the feminine and 12 in the masculine. In her own words: "This proportion seems scarcely balanced" [En las citas, la proporción (3 en femenino, 12 en masculino) nos parece escasamente equilibrada.]

After reading Dr de Andrés's paper on sexism in Spanish lexicography, I decided to take a look at the Diccionario Clave, now available free on-line. To my dismay, the on-line version, in spite of all its bells and whistles, does not allow searching for the feminine form of nouns; you have to search for the masculine head word or lema. Furthermore, the Clave's printed version does not list feminine nouns independently of the masculine entries; in other words, unlike in the DRAE where you would find the feminine noun 'ama' between 'AM' and 'amabilidad,' in the paper Clave 'ama' is not listed at all. It is because it is not listed "where it rightfully belongs" that the search engine in the electronic version cannot locate it. And now that I looked, the undated Durvan doesn't list feminine nouns either. Shame on them.

But going back to "The Dictionary," Samuel Johnson's critics also claimed that by penning definitions such as 'Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections' he violated the lexicographer's Golden Rule: When writing a definition, no word may be used that is more complex or unfamiliar than the word being defined. Well, two and a half centuries later the DRAE03 is still violating that guiding principle. Take, for instance, their infamous entry for the lovely-sounding term feminela, defined as '1. f. Mil. Pedazo de zalea para cubrir el zoquete de la lanada.' In spite of having a translator's vocabulary, I had an inkling that 'zalea' was a soft something, but I wasn't really sure what it was made of; I had heard the term 'zoquete' in Mexico used as a euphemism for 'stupid,' and here that meaning obviously did not fit; and I had absolutely no clue as to the meaning of 'lanada,' other than perhaps something made out of wool. I had to look up all three words in order to try to understand the head word. I say 'try' because each of the three definitions I sought was given by means of previous definienda, like this: 'Lanada (de lana).1. f. Mil. Instrumento para limpiar y refrescar el alma de las piezas de artillería después de haberlas disparado. Consta de un asta algo más larga que la pieza, con un zoquete cilíndrico en el extremo donde va liada la feminela. Whoever wrote those entries will get no helpe from me for getting out of Hell.

Born in 1758, three years after the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, Noah Webster, of New Hartford, CT, published in 1806 the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and in1828 came his magnum opus the American Dictionary of the English Language (ADEL). Since Webster's ADEL was thought by many to have surpassed Dr Johnson's not only in scope—70,000 words compared to Johnson's 43,500—but in authority as well, the American lexicographer's work became the gold standard. In fact, the dictionary enjoyed such appeal that the name 'Webster's' became a byword for quality dictionaries.

Not only did Noah Webster record language as it was being used (a descriptivist position not unlike Johnson's), he simplified or otherwise altered the spelling of a good number of English words (e.g., musick to music; centre to center). Whether he did so out of a nationalistic spirit (America, after all, was a very young country in 1828), or perhaps due to academic interests in phonetics, we'll never know for sure. Whatever his reasons for implementing the changes, it is generally believed that many of the differences between American and British English in spelling and pronunciation stem from these changes made unilaterally by Webster.

Of the many different dictionaries published today under the name Webster, only the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary can be considered the direct lexicographical heir of the Noah Webster 1828 ADEL. Currently edited by Frederick C. Mish, this highly respected dictionary has acerbic critics, especially those who, like Robert Hartwell Fiske, pitch their tents squarely on the prescriptivist camp. In his essay entitled The Decline of the Dictionary, Fiske states: "Lexicographers are descriptivists, language liberals. The use of disinterested to mean uninterested does not displease a descriptivist. A prescriptivist, by contrast, is a language conservative, a person interested in maintaining standards and correctness in language use. To prescriptivists, disinterested in the sense of uninterested is the mark of uneducated people not knowing the distinction between the two words. And if there are enough uneducated people saying disinterested (and I'm afraid there are) when they mean uninterested or indifferent, lexicographers enter the definition into their dictionaries. Indeed, the distinction between these words has all but vanished owing largely to irresponsible writers and boneless lexicographers." In fact, in the same vitriolic essay Fiske calls the Merriam-Webster lexicographers "Mish and his minions." I think that this description would have pleased whoever penned the assonant "Marx y sus secuaces" definition (DRAE70) quoted earlier, although I must admit that Fiske's alliterative and assonant rendition is much nicer, in form if not in intent.

Nearly a decade after Noah Webster's dictionary became available, a different kind of English dictionary was born in Clapham, published—Winchester tells us—by one Charles Richardson in 1837. What made A New Dictionary of the English Language different was that its author did away with definitions almost entirely, opting instead to show how each word had been used through English history by illustrative quotations.

But in strict terms, Dr Johnson's dictionary was indeed the first English dictionary to use quotations from literary works to illustrate usage; it is a tradition continued to this day—albeit drawing from a much larger time span of literary production and a more open set of criteria for inclusion of non literary terms—by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and by the eight-volume edition of Rufino José Cuervo's Diccionario de construcción y régimen de la lengua castellana, among others.

At first glance it would seem that a prescriptivist institution, Spain's Real Academia de la Lengua Española, had published—as early as 1729, predating Johnson by almost a quarter century and Richardson by about one hundred years—a seemingly descriptivist dictionary based on quotations; namely the Diccionario de Autoridades. Prescriptiveness and descriptiveness, according to Béjoint, are based on two different norms: 'qualitative' and 'quantitative.'

The qualitative norm is based on the usage and on the opinion of the 'best' language users, as determined by a more or less clear consensus. The qualitative norm corresponds to an 18th century type of 'corpus' that lexicographers used to support their observations rather than to establish usage. The quantitative norm, on the other hand, is based not on the observation of canonical texts, but on the observation of the linguistic usage of all 'reasonably fluent members of a community.' Any form is as good as it is used by a certain number of speakers that would make that usage acceptable. The quantitative norm corresponds to the modern 'corpus,' which can be studied with statistical methods in order to determine frequencies. In other words, a dictionary is prescriptive if it uses a qualitative norm; descriptive if it uses the quantitative one. Thus defined, the Diccionario de Autoridades is, indeed, prescriptive.

Béjoint states that all dictionaries are prescriptive. In spite of what Fiske might tell us about the MWC11, it is prescriptive in that it is a book that one consults, in which one tries to find answers. It is also a 'normative' dictionary in that it tells us how to spell words such as music, and center, and meter, and politic. Total descriptiveness is impossible, because the lexicographer cannot avoid making choices. Likewise, total prescriptiveness is unmanageable if it is estranged from the realities of usage.

For those of you who dislike descriptive dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster (MW) and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate (MWC), perhaps this will soften you a bit. Thanks to Scott Huler, I discovered that the MW and the MWC have tables and charts of all sorts that are a heck of a lot of fun to read. In its Ninth Edition, MWC featured the absolutely wonderful Beaufort Scale' description of a Force 5 wind:


fresh breeze


small trees in leaf begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters

Huler tells us in his Defining the Wind that he fell in love with this description without knowing why... and then, realizing that he had memorized it without effort, it hit him. Small trees in leaf beGin to sway. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Glorious iambic pentameter. Just about on a par with Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," me thinks, or Marlowe's "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships." And then the next line: CresTed waveLets form on inLand waTers. Dum-da, dum-da, dum-da, dum-da, dum-da. Trochaic pentameter. And the true Wow element of this beautiful language is that it was written in 1906 not by poets, but by a team of engineers!

Yet, the MW, whether we like it or not, keeps up with the times. In its Tenth Edition (currently on-line) the lovely iambic pentameter in Force 5 is gone for good, but the trochee is still whistling. And whereas in the Ninth's Force 8 progress was impeded


fresh gale
or gale


breaks twigs off trees; generally impedes progress

in the Tenth, 'progress' spoiled the bucolic landscape for ever more.


fresh gale
or gale


twigs break off trees; moving cars veer

The truth about dictionaries is that whether descriptive or prescriptive, they can be loveable or beastly. Some drive you nuts because they are syntagmatic. That is, they alphabetize derived terms under the 'mother term' and it takes forever to look things up unless you happen to own the electronic version. Some are so wacky that contain set phrases under 'it': it lathers well; or 'we': we shall see; or 'be': be teed off. Others send us spinning by listing meanings in chronological order, instead of in accordance with frequency of use. Some offer syllabification or pronunciation keys, others do not. Some use slang or regionalisms, yet don't mark them as such. Some commit the unspeakable sin of presenting head words in ALL CAPS, or equally bad, Uppercase Them All.

But whatever dictionaries may do or fail to do, and whatever their ideology or political agenda, I hope that after reading this piece on their history you'll start seeing those dictionaries you don't much care for not as hairy warts, but as eccentric friends. After all, they both inevitably grow on you as time goes by.



To Gabe, as always, for putting up with my furor scribendi.

To Álvaro Villegas Fontela, reluctant fellow defequeño, for his jamón ibérico and common sense.

To Axel Albin for his pruning shears.


Australian Academy on Humanities http://www.humanities.org.au/review/RevTitle.html

Knowing Ourselves and Others http://www.humanities.org.au/review/c5_bennett.html

Béjoint, Henri. (1994) Tradition and Innovation in Modern English Dictionaries. New York: Oxford University Press.

De Andrés Castellanos, Soledad. (2002) чSexismo en la lexicografía española?

aspectos positivos en el Diccionario del español actual de Seco, Andrés y Ramos (DEA99) http://www.ucm.es/info/circulo/no9/andres.htm

English Academy of Southern Africa (1961) http://www.englishacademy.co.za/

Fiske, Robert Hartwell. (2003) The Decline of the Dictionary in The Vocabula Review http://www.vocabula.com/2003/VRAugust03Fiske.asp

_______. (2004) The Fiske Ranking of College Dictionaries in The Vocabula Review


Galloway, Patrick (1996) Dictionary Johnson: The Man and His Masterpiece. http://www.cyberpat.com/essays/sam.html

Huler, Scott (2004) Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and how a 19th-century admiral turned science into poetry. New York: Crown

Stanford University Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language http://garamond.stanford.edu/depts/spc/johnson/intro.html

Winchester, Simon (2003) The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press

______. (1998) The Professor and the Madman. New York: HarperCollins





Cuervo, J.R. (2002) Diccionario de construcción y regimen de la lengua castellana. Barcelona: Herder Available in CD Rom as well.

Clave http://clave.librosvivos.net/ Searches for 'andaluza,' 'ama,' 'maestra' and other feminine nouns give "palabra no encontrada."

Chambers Dictionary (Brooks, Ian ed) (2003) 9th Edition. Earlier editions are sometimes available through Amazon used books.

Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition http://www.merriam-webstercollegiate.com (subscription required)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary on-line edition http://www.m-w.com/ (free)

RAE Diccionario de la Real Academia Española 22¤ Edición http://buscon.rae.es/diccionario/drae.htm Earlier editions are available through the NTTL site of the RAE http://buscon.rae.es/ntlle/SrvltGUILoginNtlle Nuevo Tesoro Lexicográfico de la Lengua Española, Diccionarios académicos, DRAE

RAE NTTL Nuevo Tesoro Lexicográfico de la Lengua Española, Diccionarios académicos, Diccionario de Autoridades http://buscon.rae.es/ntlle/SrvltGUILoginNtlle


1 South Africa does have The English Academy of Southern Africa, founded in 1961. It is an Association dedicated to promoting the effective use of English as a dynamic language.


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