The dictionary does not comes of age until the Neoclassical period.  Why so late?  Why no need earlier?


            Because there was not need to spell correctly.

            English was not a language for serious business anyway.


The earliest dictionaries come about in the Renaissance why and what were their purposes?


            The enrichment movement created a new vocabulary of hard words that many did not                know.

            The vernacular needed to move toward a uniform orthography in order to be recognized            as a respectable medium for England.


Glosses and Glossaries


The earliest attempts to explain words in England dates back to the 7th Century.


7th- and 8th-century marginal glosses in manuscripts

The earliest dictionary-like tools in English are the Old English glosses, such as one finds in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Old English "glosses" written above or beside the Latin text of the Gospels to allow Anglo-Saxon readers easier access to the Latin text (just as students today might annotate a text of Shakespeare or a foreign-language text). Sources like the Lindisfarne Gospels were invaluable for the recovery of Old English by antiquarians.


And Later:


9th century interlinear glosses. English-Latin

1100 Velum sheets with list of words glossed for young monks

1200 Alexander Neckham --trilingual English-Latin-French, De nominibus utensilium

1400 English-Latin, 12,000 words Proptorium Parvoloriam       Sive Clercorum

1480 Caxton, 52 page, French-English Vocabulary List

1483 Catholicon, English-Latin 8,000


The Renaissance works on orthography

Dictionaries of Hard Words

As early as 1582, in the Elementarie (a list of about 8,000 English words, but with no definitions), Richard Mulcaster had called for a dictionary which, in addition to providing for English words "the right writing, which is incident to the Alphabete, wold open vnto us therein, both their naturall force, and their proper use." But not until 150 years later, in Nathaniel Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), did anyone try to list all the words in the language. The earliest English dictionaries were not dictionaries at all in the modern sense, but rather lists of Latin words and their English equivalents or lists of "hard words" in English.

By end of 16th century, the listing of words in alphabetical order had been established in Latin-English dictionaries, and this principle was adopted by makers of English dictionaries. Some landmarks in early English lexicography (dictionary-making) are:


1558 A,B,C

1570 John Hart, An Orthographie

1580 William Bullokar, Book at Large

1582 Richard Mucaster, The Elementarie, lists 8000 Hard Words


1596 Edmund Coote, The English Schoole Master, brief definitions       but still not in alphabetical order


1596 Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae


            Up to now the groupings were thematic rather than alphabetical. So


1604 Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall ...of hard usuall English Words, about 2500 words, marked French and Greek loans


1616 John Bullokar, An English Expositor, 5000 words, 1st scientific dictionary


1623 Henry Cockeram, The English Dictionarie, 3 lists of words: Refined; Vulgar; and Mythology (first to call itself a dictionary)


1656 Thomas Blount, Glossographia: 11,000 entries, 1st to cite sources. Intends his text to be useful not only to "the more-knowing women and the less-knowing men" and the unlearned, but also to the "best of scholars" and "to all such as desire to understand what they read."; girst English lexicographer to attempt etymology ("true meaning of a word according to its origin: fr. Greek etymos "true")


1658 Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words, 11,000 words, largest yet, gained in size by adding common words to the ordinary list of hard words


1676 Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, expanded to 25,000 words by adding dialectal entries.


John Kersey, 1702, 1706, 1707, 1708


Development of an Authoritative Dictionary


In 1730, Nathaniel Bailey produced his Dictionarium Britannicum. It encompassed 48,000 words and became the standard English dictionary until Samuel Johnson, using Bailey's work as a foundation, produced A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Johnson conceived his plan for the dictionary with the notion of "fixing" the language.

Nathan Baily, 1730

Although Johnson is frequently accorded the credit for being the first to devide and number a lexical item's various senses, the practice can be found in use in Benjamin Martin's Lingua Britannica Reformata of 1749 and in earlier bilingual dictionaries. Whatever else Johnson's Dictionary might have been, it was unquestionably suited to the needs and tastes of his time and his society, and it was the first to be referred to as "The Dictionary."

Some have complained that Johnson allowed too much of his own personality to intrude into his definitions, but the examples usually cited are rather exceptional:

nowise -- This is commonly spoken and written by ingorant barbarians, noways."

As George Campbell (Philosophy of Rhetoric 1776) later noted, "These ignorant barbarians…are only Pope, and Swift, and Addison, and Locke, and several others of our most celebrated writers."


excise -- a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.


lexicographer -- A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.


oats -- A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.


Johnson's Dictionary was an important touchstone for Noah Webster in his development of An American Dictionary of the English Language.

The Oxford English Dictionary  (See Baugh).