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The Encyclopedia

“Encyclopedia” is a strange word. It goes back to the Greek “enkyklos paideias” or “the things of boys/children in a circle” which makes about as much sense to us as it does to you. The first encyclopedia actually predates the word itself – it was written in 1270 BCE, in Syria – and the concept seems to have also occurred in the Romans; Pliny the Elder was renowned for attempting to compress all the scientific knowledge of his time into 37 volumes. Much later, in 1408 during the Ming Dynasty in China, the Emperor Yongle oversaw the writing of one of the largest encyclopedias in history at 11,000 volumes and 370 million characters, all handwritten. (Only about 400 of the volumes still exist.) But the idea of an encyclopedia doesn’t seem to have translated to English until 1768, when three Scots started setting down the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one pamphlet at a time. It’s not even remotely recognizable as the encyclopedia we have today. Horse diseases got 39 pages, and the editors also made a point of calculating the number of species on Noah’s ark (177). The word “woman,” on the other hand, got just four words: “the female of man.”

Britannica First Edition Replica Set (3 vol.) (Britannica Black)

Samuel Johnson and the Dictionary of the English Language

When Johnson published his seminal work in 1755, it wasn’t just a dictionary – it was the dictionary, and it pretty much held on to the title until well over 100 years later; when the Oxford English Dictionary finally overtook it. A few dictionaries had been published before, but none was nearly as comprehensive. Nor did any use quotations to illustrate how the words should be used. Of course, during the nine long years he spent writing it. Johnson didn’t necessarily have any way of knowing how important his dictionary would turn out to be. Certainly, no one else seemed to know either. The only patronage Johnson could get for the book was the measly sum of ten pounds from one Lord Chesterfield, who realized his mistake only when he saw early drafts of the finished work. Trying to make up for slighting Johnson (and perhaps also trying to get future editions of the book dedicated to himself, as they would have been had he supplied more money in the first place). Chesterfield wrote several glowing reviews of the dictionary in popular magazines of the time. Johnson was not amused and wrote the Lord a nasty note, containing several chestnuts including the famous line, “Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?” Zing!

A Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology (Penguin Classics)

James Murray, W.C. Minor, and the Oxford English Dictionary

Over the 100 years after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary; the English language changed quite a bit. So in 1857 the London Philological Society decided it was high time for a new dictionary and set out on a grand quest to put one together, using mailed-in contributions from thousands of learned men and perhaps a few pseudonymous women. (We wonder, does this make the Oxford English Dictionary the world’s first wiki?) The project had a few false starts: one editor died a year into it, and another spent well over a decade preparing for what was supposed to be a ten-year project in the first place. Finally, the lexicographer James Murray took over in 1879, a commitment that would occupy the rest of his time on Earth, and then some. By 1884, Murray and his team of volunteers had gotten as far down their list as ant. The final result wouldn’t be published until 1928, 13 years after Murray’s death. The dictionary’s other main contributor, W.C. Minor, didn’t live to see it completed either. Most of Minor’s contributions were sent in form an asylum in England; a veteran with evidence of battle trauma, he had been confined there after shooting and killing a man in 1872. Minor was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In the years to come his condition deteriorated so badly that he cut off his own penis. He died, impoverished and hospital bound in 1920.

Paperback Oxford English Dictionary

Noah Webster and an American Dictionary of the English Language

If you’re impressed by Sam Johnson’s nine years of slaving on his dictionary, you’ll be blown away by Webster, who started his at age 43 and finished in 1828 at 70. As a young Yale grad and member of the bar, Webster grew disinterested in practicing law, so he moved to teaching. While in the classroom though, he noticed a dearth of quality textbooks, so he wrote the iconic “blue-backed speller,” a basic textbook used in classrooms for decades. In fact, the book has never been out of print since and estimated sales are as high as 100,000,000 copies! He’s also responsible for founding New York City’s first daily newspaper in 1893, American Minerva. In fact, Webster’s editorials in the Minerva got quite a reaction: he was called “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” And yet when he died he was considered an American hero, partly because his dictionary wasn’t just supremely useful – it was an expression of national pride. Webster’s the guy you have to thank for a number of linguistic differences between Americans and the British: “color” instead of “colour,” for instance. Basically, Webster was a man on a mission. Noticing that Americans were developing lots of regional tics and dialects, he wanted to make sure everyone sounded at the very least like they were speaking the same language. More important, though, he didn’t want people sounding like the Brits.

American Dictionary of the English Language (1828 Facsimile Edition)

Roget’s Thesaurus

Peter Mark Roget had a good bit of experience with reference books by the time he decided to write the world’s best-known thesaurus: a physician, he was one of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s major contributors on medical topics. And he’d been compiling a list of words for half a century. So in 1852, he released Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. Organized by categories instead of alphabetically – and lacking many of the features that had appeared in the 40-odd thesauruses (thesauri?) published before then – the work mystified most people at first. That is until they realized it could instantly make them sound smarter. By the time Roget died, he had personally overseen 25 reprintings. The thesaurus would continue to be updated many, many times after that, often serving as a lens for the culture of its times. Time magazine, in 1930, reported that a Jewish advocacy group had “flayed the Crowell company for perpetrating roget’s shameful connotations of the word Jew: cunning, usurer, rich, extortioner, heretic, deceiver, imposter, harpy, schemer, lickpenny, pinchfist, shylock, chicanery, duplicity, crafty.” The word “Jew” was soon deleted, erased, edited out, and removed from the book.

Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases


(Mary Carmichael, Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur, eds., Mental_floss In The Beginning, Arts and Literature, HarperCollins Publisher, 2007; pp. 26-27)

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