+ The First English Dictionary, 1604

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Recently published, or in a sense re-published, is a book titled “The First English Dictionary, 1604,” by Robert Cawdrey, which has an introduction by John Simpson.  It  is offered by Oxford: Bodleian Library, contains 154 pages, and costs $25.

According to an article in the New York Review of books by James Gleick, the birth of the  dictionary genre — in the English speaking world — can be precisely dated to  Shakespeare’s time, 1604. 

Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and defrocked priest, published a short book with a long title that began “A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes…”

Cawdrey did not yet know such a word as “dictionary.”  His book runs to 2500 words.  Gleick’s piece explains that Cawdrey’s definitions are terse and often lack self-confidence and erudition.  For example

  • abricot,  kind of fruit
  • alabaster, kind of stone
  • citron, kind of fruit
  • crocodile, kind of beast

Some definitions are a struggle: 

  • gargarise, to wash the mouth, and throate within, by stirring some liquor up and downe in the mouth.
  • horizon, a circle, deviding the halfe of the firmament, from the other halfe which we see not.
  • ironie, a mocking speech.

And, says Gleick, if Cawdrey doesn’t know something, he has nowhere to look it up.  So he invented the “perfectly useless circular definition:”

  • gentile, a heathen
  • heathen, see Gentile

Also, as Gleick points out, at that time there was no such thing as a right or wrong way to spell a word (even though Cawdrey had promised “heerby also the true Orthography”).  In the very title, Cawdrey indiscrimintely uses both “words” and “wordes.”

No one knows how many copies of this book were actually printed. But only one survived; it is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Last year Oxford republished the book with what Gleick calls a “thoughtful and witty introduction by John Simpson,” the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.


In every dictionary words are listed alphabetically.  But they don’t “just happen” to be alphabetized, writes Gleick.

We all take alphabetical order for granted.  It is so ubiquitous in our world that it seems second nature.  But in 1604 it seemed counterintuitive.

Writes Gleick:

[Alphabetizing] is an ordering scheme divorced from sense, narrative, chronology, and anything else to do with meaning.  As a new invention it was a game changer critical for the organization and promulgation of knowledge, enabling humans to store and retrieve bits of information with unprecedented efficiency — that is, to behave as computers…

But in 1604, Cawdrey had to explain the process step by step.  In a special note to the reader, he wrote

Thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand… Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end.  Againe, if they word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then look toward the end of that letter.  And so of all the rest. &c.

Says Gleick, “This was unnatural, mechanical, and arbitrary.  All it had going for it was that it worked.”

And now, he suggests, alphabetizing may be on its way out with the invention of the search box.

sole source: James Gleick’s article “If Shakespeare Had Been Able to Google…” in the New York Review of Books on 12/18/08.  Read the entire article , which also covers Roy Blount’s “Alphabet Juice” (see my earlier post), and “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” by Ammon Shea.   www.nybooks.com.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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