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Period Dictionaries

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the January 2006, A.S. XL issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

When asked who invented the dictionary, most people will probably answer Samuel Johnson, though not a few would give Noah Webster. But it is closer to say that these two gentlemen gave it final and familiar form. Yet dictionaries are as old as written language itself. What gives the modern dictionary its power is its organization and the fullness of the information that it contains. It has had a long evolution, of which the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had a major part. This is that story.

The earliest dictionaries were little more than word lists. The words were not so much defined as commented upon and illustrated by quotations from literature. The intention was not to compile an all inclusive vocabulary list, but as an aid to deal with obscure, technical, or words that had fallen out of common usage.

In the early Middle Ages, it became common practice to write notes, called glosses, in the margins and in-between lines of Latin text to explain difficult passages or words. These were often collected to form a manuscript of their own known as glossaries. Some of the earliest existing glossaries date from the seventh century.

While alphabetic order has been shown to be known in ancient times, it was not widely used. The first major use of alphabetic order is credited to the lexicon that is a part of “Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum” by Papias the Lombard in the eleventh century. How novel its use was can been seen in the amount of detail devoted to explaining how it works.

The first work that was recognizable as a dictionary was the “Catholicon” by Giovanni Balbi, a Dominican friar in Genoa, completed in 1286. The primary topic of the Catholicon is actually grammar. But it was the dictionary section that came to dominate later editions. So much so that the word Catholicon was used as a synonym for dictionary. The dictionary not only offered definitions, but also pronunciation, word origins and usage. It was the model and source for most dictionaries till 1600.

The above works were totally in Latin, but bilingual glossaries existed next to them. These were little more than a list of Latin words with their local language equivalents beside them. The reverse order form of these vocabularies were much rarer. Alphabetical order was almost never used, instead the words were grouped by topic, the order of which depended on the purpose of the author. One of the more significant compilations (Latin-French) was by Firmin Le Ver, completed in 1440. While largely based on the Catholicon, it drew from many sources and is more methodically organized. At the same time a Latin-English dictionary “Promptorium Parvulorum, sive Clericorum” was also produced.

Naturally Latin was the most common half of these bilingual dictionaries. Latin was the common lingua franca for the educated class. The class that actually wrote, and therefore had need of a dictionary. But during the course of the 16th century other pairings would appear. The first French-English dictionary was published in 1530, followed by English-Welsh in 1547, Italian-English in 1567 and Spanish-English in 1591.

The invention of printing resulted in an explosion of dictionaries. The Catholicon was printed in 1460, five years after Gutenburg’s famous Bible. It was thought that this edition was printed by Gutenburg, though its inferior quality argues against it. William Caxton printed a French-English dictionary in 1480. A version of Le Ver’s work was printed in 1490. In 1502 Ambrogio Calepino published a multilingual dictionary called “Dictionarium” or “Dictionnaire polyglotte” that rivaled the Catholicon as another synonym: calepin.

Associated material such as glossaries, vocabularies, and phrase books were also produced. A glossary of English law terms was published in 1527. In 1566 there was published a glossary of English cant, a sub-language of the more roguish population. A rhyming dictionary in English and Latin was published in 1570. A dictionary of English regional dialect did not appear until 1674.

Single language dictionaries, that were not Latin, do not appear until the 17th century. The first to appear was the English dictionary by Robert Cawdrey published in 1604. The first important Italian dictionary was done in 1612. The French version would not appear until 1680.

The reason that Johnson gets so much credit for the dictionary is not, as we have seen, for creating the idea, nor for the comprehensivesness of his dictionary. There were contemporary dictionaries which had a larger vocabulary. It rests on the precision of his definitions supported by liberal use of quotations from a broad swath of literature. While not universally embraced at the beginning, it out lasted its rivals and became the standard, superseded only by the much larger Oxford English Dictionary.

For all the changes, the primary purpose of the dictionary remained the same: to understand unfamiliar words. The standardization of spelling, pronunciation, and usage is merely the consequence of the existence of the dictionary. Not there were those who attempted to impose their conception of these things by the promotion of a particular dictionary. And there were those who attempted to fix the language by ruling out words as too foreign. But the reality is that a dictionary is merely a snapshot of the language at the time it was compiled, and is soon obsolete by the continuing evolution of the language.

The importance of the dictionary goes beyond being a list of words and their meanings. It is the archetype of reference material. The encyclopedia is nothing more than a dictionary of ideas and facts. In the 17th century the words were used interchangeably. More critically, within the idea of a dictionary is the idea that knowledge can be broken down into pieces and organized in a systematic manner. And therein lies the seed of the Scientific Revolution that still profoundly shapes our world today.



Merrilees, Brian. "Prolegomena to a History of French Lexicography: the Development of the Dictionary in Medieval France." Purdue University. Dec 2005
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Moore, Kira. "Dictionaries of French in the sixteenth century, with some Reference to Seventeenth-Century Developments." Dec 2005
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Read, Allen. "Encyclopedias and Dictionaries." The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 18. 1986. pp 385-393.

Starnes, DeWitt T, and Gertrude Noyes. Then English Dictionary From Cawdrey to Johnson: 1604-1755. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.


Copyright © 2006 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.


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