How did the dictionary come to be?
The History of the Dictionary
We’ve all heard the phrase look it up in the dictionary. But how did it actually come to be? What is the history of the dictionary?
On April 15th 1747, Samuel Johnson published an English dictionary at over 43,500 words.
It wasn’t the first dictionary ever published, but it was by far the most comprehensive English language dictionary of its time. It was also the first that ever published etymologies and various meanings for words.
It took Johnson and and several part time copyists eight years to compile the definitions. Although comprehensive, it had many biases and limitations, most being that Johnson had some quirky ideas about standards for word inclusion.
There have been other dictionaries that have been published since Johnson’s edition– the most famous being Webster’s and the Oxford editions. Both of which were even more comprehensive in their development. However, were they any more objective?
I recently read an interesting book called The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It really heightened my understanding and awareness of the bias in the English language. Williams went into great detail to discuss the differences in word choices and meanings for class and gender.
I feel this is something we still see today. Even with creations of “urban” dictionaries, there are still varying forms of slang, cultural, racial, regional, and even ageist bias in the use of the English language.
Not to mention, with technology and social media- new words, phrases, memes and meanings are created at the speed of light. Think of the new context behind the use of the name “Karen” or phrase “Let’s go Brandon.”
Is there any wonder that people will forever be lost in understanding the true implications of conversational English?
Language is tricky, so much can be lost in translation, and understanding. However, there is also a beauty in its complexity. Could language ever be truly objective? Would we even want it to be?
Much like a woman, words will always contain more than immediately meets the eye. You have to dig deeper to understand the true context and layers in its meaning.
Maybe that’s the problem so far- these dictionaries have all been compiled by men… 😉