History and Compilation of Dictionaries

The talk was given by Susan Purcell who: writes and speaks on the English language and linguistics; is fluent in three foreign languages; is the author of ten published books on these topics; is the editor of the Puzzler Crossword Solver’s Dictionary; and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. As a former teacher, the talk was clear without the usual visual aids.

The first English Dictionary was compiled and published by Robert Cawdrey in 1604 and was titled Table Alphabetical and contained about 2,500 words. Its production was notable as it post dated Shakespeare.

The source and meanings of the words were taken from the literature at the time.
There was dissatisfaction with the dictionaries of the period, so in June 1746 a group of London booksellers contracted Samuel Johnson to write a dictionary. It was compiled and published by Johnson in 1755 and contained 40,000 words derived mainly again from the available literature. Johnson took seven years to complete the work, although he had said it would take three.
In English, the meaning of words was bottom up, that is in common usage and subject to change over time whereas in French and Italian the meaning was top down and thereby imposed.
During this mid 18th century period, English replaced French and Latin which were used by the aristocracy and at courts. The replacement was such that French words were omitted from the English dictionary.
The Oxford English Dictionary followed, which was first completed and published in the 1920s, and traces the historical development of the English language describing usage in its many variations throughout the world.
The derivation of words and their pronunciations were described and some humorous examples were given, such as lexicographer was a harmless drudge.
To provide some scope, there are currently around 500,000 words in English. It is possible to get by in English with as few as 100 words; it’s not great conversationally but suffices to ask questions and give instructions. An educated person manages with about 20,000 and a top wordsmith will get by with 50,000 words.

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