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“A Table Alphabeticall”

By Anne Curzan
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Title page of A Table AlphabeticallLook me up sometime

We now take for granted that dictionaries, even abridged ones, will be big. But that has not always been the case in the history of English.

Take for example, the very first dictionary of the English language, published in 1604. It is called A Table Alphabeticall by William Cawdrey, and it is a very slim book at about 130 pages. It is not at all what we would expect from today’s dictionaries.

Let me give you a little background to explain how the book could be this thin.

The prestige

When it was published in 1604, English was just coming to be seen as a prestigious language.

For a long time English was seen as unrefined when compared to Latin and French, and certainly not worthy of grammar books and dictionaries.

The very first dictionaries that included English were bilingual dictionaries so people could learn Latin or French or other languages better. It wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that people seemed to have had a sense that English had come into its own enough to merit its own dictionaries.

There was in 1596 a book called The English School-maister by Edmund Coote that had a list of “hard words” in the back, but the very first book that served as a monolingual English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s.

Hard usual English words

This is the full title of Cawdrey’s dictionary: “A table alphabeticall containing and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usual English words borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French with the interpretation thereof by plain English words gathered for the benefit and help of ladies, gentlewomen, and any other unskillful persons.”

We’ll leave that last part about ”ladies, gentlewomen, and any other unskillful persons” for another day and another discussion. But let’s think about what this dictionary was trying to do.

It was trying to explain “hard usual words.” After all, why would you need a dictionary for the easy words? You already know those. So this early dictionary existed to list only the words people considered hard in 1604: words like ocean, accept, hazard, harmony, and client. These are words we would no longer consider especially “hard.” The dictionary also includes a few words that didn’t survive in the language, including preludium, which is defined as “an entrance to any thing.”

The definitions in Cawdrey’s dictionary are very short–often just a few words. There are no pronunciations, no etymologies. Flip through it today and it will look like a very simplified dictionary.

The book also does not take for granted that people would have known the concept of alphabetical order in 1604. There are instructions in the beginning about how to find words. For example, a word beginning with “ca” will be earlier under the “c’s” than a word beginning with “co.”

And in fact, if you read through the dictionary, you’ll find that the alphabetical order is sometimes a little bit “approximate.”

In a word

This historical perspective raises interesting questions about what it means to try to create a dictionary to include all the words in the English language, rather than just the “hard” words.  Where do we draw the boundaries? Do all scientific words get in? Does all the jargon of the music industry get in? What about equestrian terms?

I hope this little bit of history about the earliest English dictionary will give you a new way to think about the dictionaries you use today.

The next time you open your big dictionary at home or you surf online over to a dictionary and expect to find whatever word it is you’re looking for–hard or easy–and find a full definition with pronunciation, etymologies, multiple meanings, and maybe even a sample sentence, I hope you stop to consider how much dictionaries have changed in the last 500 years and how much work goes into making them.

This video appears courtesy of LSA Today. Curzan’s observations on language also can be heard on the Michigan Radio program “That’s What They Say.”

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.