EP 002: Words on Words

What do a pencil, a peanut, and a pilot have in common? They're all in the same book – and this is how they got there. In this episode, we take a quick whip through the highs and lows of the journey to a Dictionary of the English Language. But don't let that put you off. We came the weird way. 

Today we’re talking words – what they mean, where we keep them, and who decides how we use them? We’re talking, of course, about the Dictionary.

Now a quick disclaimer here – there are many different dictionaries in many different languages, and they all have very rich and complex histories surrounding them. And of course, there are numerous languages, written and spoken, that have fascinating and storied pasts, and we will be talking about those in coming episodes. So English is by no means the definitive or the only place to start, but it is A place, and I’m going to kick of there simply because it’s the language of this podcast.

For many people, A Dictionary of the English Language, sometimes published as Johnson’s Dictionary, is the first one that springs to mind. (Actually most people probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Samuel Johnson, or his Dictionary but they should). It’s a story that goes back further than you think, and is scattered with betrayal, rivalry, murder, and some frankly idiotic decisions.

But for those who have never taken this rollicking journey, Johnson’s Dictionary appears to be the very first of its kind. Published in 1755, it was, and is, a remarkable achievement. But it is not, in fact, the first dictionary, not even the first English Dictionary, although it may very probably be the first GOOD English dictionary which is another matter entirely.

The earliest ‘dictionaries’ in England were actually not really in English at all – they were glossaries of French, Latin and Spanish words, with English definitions alongside them. The word ‘dictionarius’ was coined in about 1200 CE by John of Garland, an Englishman working in Paris as a university teacher and grammarian, and writing prolifically in Latin. This always seems so odd to me, the idea that a man in the middle ages might be spending his time worrying about conjugating verbs against the backdrop of barbaric tyranny, feudalism and frequent plague. But it’s a reminder of the fact that the Medieval Period was populated by real, thinking, breathing humans with interests, and not just an accidental blip that happened between two more important time periods. There was learning and art and progress happening, and it’s not just the drunken aunt of history who doesn’t get invited to parties, and whom people speak about with a faint twinge of embarrassment.

So John of Garland coins the term that will eventually become the word ‘dictionary’, and his grammatical writing is much used throughout England during and for a time, after, his life. And when I say “much used” of course, I mean “Much used by people who are allowed to learn to read or write, and can afford to do so” which in the Medieval period is probably about the same number of people who actually think about Samuel Johnson over their morning toast. So not many.

The next milestone comes in 1582, a good three hundred years later, which does nothing to help my point about the Medieval Period not being so dull after all. Richard Mulcaster, a headmaster and teacher, starts pointing out to people the sheer lunacy of the fact that English is not the language of learning in the English speaking world. He also suggests that if everyone in the English speaking world was able to use words in the same way, it would might be a little easier to take the language seriously. Up to now, and even afterwards, there hasn’t been a standardized way of using the language, or even spelling the words in the language. So that should make you feel better if you’re one of those people who panic every time you get a text message written by anyone under the age of 21 – the world isn’t ending. The people who dreamt up the language didn’t even know how to spell for a good couple of hundred years.

Richard Mulcaster takes a stab at stabilizing the language, with a pedagogical guide called ‘Elementarie’. In this, he includes a list of 8000 words – very useful, very handy, unless you want to actually use them, because there are no definitions. Mulcaster may have thought this totally unnecessary. After all everyone knows words like elephant, glitter and bum. But the list includes more obscure words like brible brable, carpetknight, and flindermouse, which – with a few hundred years between us – are rather more obscure.

Also – and I cannot emphasize too strongly how strange I find this – his list WAS NOT IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER. In fact, most of the ‘word-lists’ at this time weren’t alphabetically arranged. If anything, they were arranged by subject, which is only useful if you a) already know what word you are looking for, b) already know what it means, and c) have a lot of time on your hands. Imagine the pauses in the family Scrabble games while Auntie Mabel looks up everyone words before allowing them to play – children would go through puberty and be married off, still seated around the table.

Even despite this monumentally bizarre decision – and to be fair, he wasn’t the only one – Richard Mulcaster is widely regarded as the founder of English lexicography. And this attempt to stabilize the language was backed up a few decades later by Robert Cawdrey. This poor teacher was deeply concerned about something that plagues us to this very day – the absolute incomprehensibility of younger generations. If you’ve ever had to turn on the subtitles just to get through an episode of post 90’s television – Robert Cawdrey is your man. As he put it, the bright young things were mingling with so many other foreign bright young things that – and “they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell or understand what they say.”

And so he created his seminal work – the first text (that we know of anyway) to really resemble the English Dictionary as it is today: the Table Alphabeticall.

Cawdrey’s dictionary contained about 2500 words, in alphabetical order this time (hooray!) and with definitions. The idea of alphabetical order was so mind-blowing to people at the time that the Table Alphabeticall actually contains instructions, explain that words beginning with A are at the front, and words starting with V nearer the end. Madness. Once people figured out how to use it (and we’re not judging them, life was still pretty tough in the 1600s. They had a lot going on), it proved quite popular, and made it all the way to four editions. But it was still considered mostly unreliable, which seems a bit unfair considering that it was, at the very least, in a reliable order.

Twelve years after Cawdrey’s first publication, things really get interesting. Thomas Blount released his dictionary – the Glossographia – complete with more than 10 000 words, and more detailed definitions than any before it. This was picked up by one Edward Philips, who seems to have liked it so much that he pinched most of it and republished it as ‘The New World of English Words: Or a General Dictionary’. This set off a battle so fierce that interest in dictionaries skyrocketed. Again, there wasn’t much to do of an eve in the days before Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. The two argued back and forth in a kind of pre-digital age Twitter Battle. Unfortunately for Blount, he died, giving Phillips a de facto victory in the feud that most people consider to be at least partially undeserved.

The next big breakthrough is the one we all know and love – Samuel Johnson. He was contracted by a group of dissatisfied booksellers who seem to have decided it was high time to take the matter of standardized English into their own hands. I imagine they were tired of giving refunds for less comprehensive dictionaries that turned out to be missing the buyers’ word of choice.

Samuel Johnson took seven years to complete his great work – and it was a great work – but it is not one without it’s quirks. He allowed small traces of his personality and views to leak into the words, preserving forever snippets of himself between the many pages. 

One of the more delightful aspects of this, unless of course you are French, is his absolute disdain for the Francophone aspects of English. He left most of them out, and dismissed the others in the definition:

Finesse he called “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language”; Monsieur “a term of reproach for a Frenchman”; and ruse “a French word neither elegant nor necessary.”

Fortunately this all means we have a ready-made dictionary we can reinstate, should Brexit ever fully take hold.

If anyone listening IS French, it may lift your spirits to know that the Scottish don’t fair much better. Oats, according to Johnson, is “A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

These quirks don’t diminish the impressive scale of his achievement. Indeed, many might argue that they increase it, as the Dictionary he produced managed to revolutionize the form, and capture something of the author at the same time. Add to this the fact that Johnson almost certainly suffered from undiagnosed and untreated Tourette’s, and you really get a sense of how remarkable this work was. Unsurprising, then, that it stood unrivalled for about 173 years, until the Oxford English Dictionary arrived to take center stage.

This volume is a household name now, and some form of it graces the shelves of many English-speaking households. And this is where our saga of words gets really weird, because as welcome as this book is in much of the English speaking world, the same can not be said of one of its main contributors.

The Oxford English Dictionary took nearly 50 years to complete, and one of the reasons it was able to be so vast and thorough was because the editors realized early one that the task was simply to enormous for any one man, or even a small group. They invited members of the public to send through examples and quotations of words as they came across whilst reading. One man answered the call with gusto – one William Chester Minor. American born and Yale educated, Minor had served as a surgeon in the Union army during the American Civil War. His mental health went into serious decline, perhaps as a result of the horrors of war seen close-up, and he was committed to a lunatic asylum (as mental hospitals were then called) in Washington in 1868.

A year and a half later, he was showing now signs of improvement, and relocated to London, hoping that the change would help his condition. It did not. His paranoia became so extreme that in 1872, he shot and killed George Merrett – a man on his way to work, with six children and a pregnant wife at home. William Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but was imprisoned at the high security Broadmoor Hospital – then regarded as a prison for the criminally insane.

Because of his army pension, his rooms were relatively comfortable, and he was allowed to read and receive visitors. One of those visitors was the widow of the man he had killed, who brought him books and news of the outside world. Either from her, or from the booksellers he wrote to, he heard the call for volunteers, and devoted the better part of the next two decades to combing through his books, compiling quotations of the various ways he saw the words being used, and passing them on to Oxford. His health continued to decline to the point where his delusions caused him to commit terrible self-mutilation. To his credit, James Murray – then the editor of the Dictionary – did not forget him. After much campaigning on Minor’s behalf, he was released back to the United States, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the last ten years of his life in care. 

Against the backdrop of such tragedy, one likes to imagine that he may have found comfort in the company of the words and books he treasure so much. James Murray actually paid homage to his enormous contribution to the Dictionary, very publicly acknowledging that  “we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.”

There are of course, more people involved in this story than the ones we’ve had time for today, but even with just the big hitters, its quite a rollercoaster. And that makes another of Samuel Johnson’s original definitions very amusing to look back on:

“Dull, adjective: Not exhilarating;: as in, to make dictionaries is dull work.”

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