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Words, words, words

We have lots of dictionaries here at Oxford. (Here are just a few.) Yet I had never given much thought to the word “dictionary” itself until I read Elizabeth Knowles new book How to Read a Word. In the following excerpt, Knowles offers a short history of the dictionary, with thoughts from logophiles like Samuel Johnson on the authority of these books of words.     –Hanna Oldsman, Publicity Intern

‘Is it in the dictionary?’ is a formulation suggesting that there is a single lexical authority: ‘The Dictionary’. As the British academic Rosamund Moon has commented, ‘The dictionary most cited in such cases is the UAD: the Unidentified Authorizing Dictionary, usually referred to as “the dictionary”, but very occasionally as “my dictionary”.’ The American scholar John Algeo has coined the term lexicographicolatry for a reverence for dictionary authority amounting to idolatry. As he explained:

English speakers have adopted two great icons of culture: the Bible and the dictionary. As the Bible is the sacred Book, so the dictionary has become the secular Book, the source of authority, the model of behavior, and the symbol of unity in language.

–John Algeo ‘Dictionaries as seen by the Educated Public in Great Britain and the USA’ in F.J. Hausmann et al. (eds.) An International Encyclopedia of Lexicography (1989) vol. 1, p. 29

While recognizing the respect for lexical authority illuminated by this passage, it is difficult to find less unquestioning perspectives. The notion of any dictionary representing a type of scriptural authority runs counter, for instance, to the view of the ‘Great Lexicographer’ Samuel Johnson that:

Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.

–Samuel Johnson, letter to Francesco Sastres, 21 August 1784

A dictionary may also be highly derivative: twenty years before Johnson’s letter, the French writer and critic Voltaire had warned cynically in his Philosophical Dictionary that ‘All dictionaries are made from dictionaries.’ However, there is evidence that Johnson’s contemporary Lord Chesterfield had also embraced the concept of universal lexical authorization. He wrote to his son in 1754:

Attend minutely to your style, whatever language you speak or write in; seek for the best words, and think of the best turns. Whenever you doubt of the propriety or elegancy of any word, search the dictionary, or some good author for it, or inquire of somebody, who is master of that language.

–Lord Chesterfield, letter, 12 February 1754

Overall, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a natural tendency to regard the dictionary with which we are most familiar as having particular authority…

dictionary: It is possible that dictionary will be one of the least-consulted entries in such a reference book, since if you are already using a dictionary, you may well not feel any need to explore its name. However, doing so does add interest and context to what has been a staple of our bookshelves for over five hundred years.

The first recorded use of the word in English comes from the first half of the sixteenth century, and its first appearance in a title is from a Latin-English dictionary of 1538, The Dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght. In 1547, a Welsh-English dictionary advertised itself as ‘moche necessary to all such Welshemen as will spedly lerne the Englyshe tongue’. By the early seventeenth century, a character in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi could respond to an unknown word, ‘What’s that? I need a dictionary to’t.’

The term came into the language from medieval Latin, originally in the fuller form dictionarium manuale ‘manual of words’ or dictionarium liber ‘book of words’. Dictionarium comes ultimately from Latin dicere ‘to say’, which is also the basis of our English word diction.

Elizabeth Knowles became a historical lexicographer through working as a library researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, and then as a Senior Editor for the 4th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. She is Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (7th Edition), and her editorial credits include What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations, and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Watch some videos and read more here.

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Recent Comments

  1. Michael Vnuk

    Minor typo: Samuel Johnson stopped writing well before 1984.

  2. [...] Dictionaries and Lexical Authority In a splendid posting on the OUP Blog, concerning the unswerving authority accorded to “the dictionary,” Elizabeth Knowles [...]

  3. [...] estos tiempos aún oscuros de lo que John Algeo llamaba “lexicograficolatría”, es decir, de reverencia excesiva a la autoridad del diccionario, o a un supuesto comité de sabios [...]

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