How would you learn English without a dictionary? These books that we now take for granted would never have existed if it were not for the immensely hard work of a few exceptionally talented men.
"Dictionaries", said Samuel Johnson, "are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true." He should know, having been single-handedly responsible for the creation of the most famous and most influential of historical English dictionaries, A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.
But dictionaries have been around for a good deal longer than the last 250 years. Dating from around 600 BC, the oldest preserved work of lexicography is a word list of the Akkadian language, spoken in the ancient region of Akkad in northern Babylonia. At about the same time the ancient Greeks first began to study their language, and started producing dictionaries that by the first century AD had become quite sophisticated.
In western Europe bilingual dictionaries were actually the first to appear. The earliest to be printed was an English-French one dating from 1480. It was the work of William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England.
Though Samuel Johnson's masterwork is often thought of as the first purely English dictionary, this is in fact not the case. There had been many before him, mainly produced during the 150 years that preceded his publication. But these early dictionaries were most often collections of difficult or 'hard' words without the more comprehensive scope we are used to today that Johnson himself introduced.
The first of these was schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French &c., which was published in 1604. With 2,500 entries, the book was aimed at "Ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons". As we can see, some of Cawdrey's "wordes" are no longer spelt quite how they used to be, and perhaps his definition of women needs a little updating!
In the eighteenth century we see the emergence of a more modern style of dictionary. John Kersey's A New English Dictionary (1702) contained 28,000 words, and his revision of an earlier collection the New World of Words (1706) stretched to 38,000 definitions. In true modern style, Kersey even brought out a 'pocket' edition. His Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum of 1708 was the precursor to today's concise dictionaries.
Nathan Bailey is another pre-Johnson lexicographer who deserves a mention. Between 1721 and 1736 Bailey made three dictionaries, each an improvement on the last. In many ways his work is as important as that of Johnson, as he was the first to include the history and origins of words along with definitions, and to mark the stress and syllables. But his work was not without its shortcomings. By defining the word 'horse' as nothing more than "a beast well known" he failed to touch upon the mass of other meanings of the word and didn't really tell us a lot about the animal itself.
Johnson's compilation of some 50,000 words in a two-volume publication took eight years of incredibly hard work to produce, and went on to become the basis on which other dictionaries were written for over a century. Johnson had painstakingly studied the work of his predecessors and had read a vast amount of literature which he often quoted in his definitions. This in itself was a significant step forward, and though other lexicographers had discussed using quotations in their definitions, none had actually done it before.
Perhaps inevitably, but rather unfortunately, the majority of Johnson's definitions that people nowadays remember are the amusing or erroneous ones. The most famous example is his description of oats: "Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." Other than being quite an insult to Scots, this definition, like Bailey's horse, hardly helps us learn exactly what the word in question means.
Despite these occasional lapses, Johnson's dictionary remained the most authoritative until the American Noah Webster arrived on the scene in the 1820s. To this day Webster's name is synonymous with American dictionaries, and his An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828 was, at the time, the most comprehensive dictionary in both America and Britain. When it was first published Webster boasted that it would standardize the American tongue, but later realized, like Johnson had before him, that no lexicographer could ever hope to 'fix' a language. As language naturally evolves it is necessary for dictionaries to be continually revised in order to stay up-to-date. Nowadays English lexicographers agree that revisions should be made every two or three years and completely new editions published every ten years.
Seventy years of work
The next great step forward came in 1857 when Richard Chenevix Trench of the Philological Society of England decided it was high time a fully comprehensive successor to Johnson's dictionary, now over a hundred years old, was made. The members of the Society decided the new dictionary should make use of all the innovations in lexicography up to that time - quoting literature, including the history of words and adding pronunciations - to make the most accurate possible reference. Perhaps when they first began, the editors had little idea of just how much work they had given themselves, as it was not until 1928 that their dictionary was finally finished! This massive twelve-volume work, containing a total of 15,487 pages and some 414,000 entries, was called The Oxford English Dictionary.
In the early 1900s the Oxford University Press realized there might be a small problem with the massive publication. It was simply too big and would be so expensive that it would have limited commercial potential. So in 1911 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English was published, which in its many new editions has become the standard household dictionary for British users.
When you next look up a word, spare a thought for the painstaking work that has gone into providing you with such a useful reference book as a dictionary. And if, as so often happens especially with bilingual dictionaries, you end up with a translation or definition that makes no sense, be patient - the lexicographer's task is not an easy one.