The history of the dictionary

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Looking up the word in a dictionary, whether with an old-fashioned paper dictionary or an online site is the best way to find the definition of a new word
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The history of the dictionary isn't simple.

Dictionaries have been around for centuries, and a dictionary is an essential tool for anyone who likes to read. No matter how smart you are, you will eventually come across words that you don't know. Looking up the word in a dictionary, whether with an old-fashioned paper dictionary or an online site, like Merriam-Webster, is the best way to find the definition of a new word. The next time you look up a word, keep in mind that the history of the dictionary is a big part of the history of our language.

Early History

The earliest mention of a dictionary in history is from Babylon in the 6th century BC. The Chinese had their first written dictionary in 100 AD; Japanese history mentions their first dictionary in the 7th century AD.

In Europe, the earliest dictionaries didn't contain definitions of words. Instead, they were bilingual dictionaries, meaning you could look up a French word and find its English equivalent, or vice versa.

English Dictionaries

The first English alphabetical dictionary was called "A Table Alphabeticall". It was written by a teacher named Robert Cawdrey, and was published in London in 1604. "A Table Alphabeticall" more closely resembled a thesaurus, with one-word synonyms given as definitions for most words.

Next came essayist and author Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language." In the 18th century, literacy was on the rise and books were becoming cheaper to print. Johnson's intention was to come up with a more standardized spelling system. His dictionary took him ten years to write, and was finally finished in 1755.

In 1857, the Philological Society of London, a group dedicated to the study of language, decided to undertake a comprehensive study of English, and publish the first complete dictionary of the English language, which came to be known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It was a huge undertaking, and took much longer than they imagined. The OED was released in 12 separate volumes between the years 1888 and 1928. In 1989, a 20-volume second edition was published. The process of writing the OED involved dozens of people, and even inspired a book: "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary" by Simon Winchester, Harper Collins 1998.

American Dictionaries

Today's modern day Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, used by most college students and available in paper, CD-Rom, or online, can trace its roots back to Noah Webster, the American author and editor known as the "Father of American Education." Webster published "An American Dictionary of the English Language" in 1828. He helped to standardize American spelling and differentiate it from British spelling. His dictionary is the reason we write "color," not "colour," and "theater," instead of "theatre."

The history of the dictionary is colorful and varied. Many people and hundreds of years have gone into giving us this commonly used reference book.

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