The Little Dictionary That Could

They can be found almost anywhere you turn, from the scrawny, haphazard one dollar versions sold in five and dimes, to the immense hardbound volumes generally reserved for wooden pulpits in libraries. We turn to this book as though it were the wisest of sages, seeking its finale word countless times in our lives. No, not the bible, not the atlas - the English dictionary.

For a tome with so much power it is fascinating to learn that the first book to be coined as an English dictionary (as a monolingual dictionary) was born a meagre four hundred define dictionary meaning and one years ago. While "glossaries" such as English to Italian or English to Spanish had previously been around for some time, it was not until an English chap by the name of Robert Cawdrey wrote and complied his manuscript, "A Table Alphabetical", that a book by the name of "dictionary" was first penned in English.

To delve into the vast, complicated history of the English language and all its idiosyncrasies, rules, and changes is a bit beyond the means of this article. The late appearance of English dictionaries (Sanskrit dictionaries had already existed for hundreds of years) is largely due to the ever-evolving, and incredibly varied English that was being spoken at the turn of the seventeenth century. In some instances the same English word could have dozens of spellings (and more than a few meanings), and this first, almost humble stab at creating a reference point amongst the chaos was a scant, skinny book that contained a mere 2543 headings. Three subsequent versions would later bring the heading count up to 3200.

Looking at the modern dictionaries that we have at our disposal today it is hard to believe that Cawdrey's was so minuscule in size. Yet here was a man who decided it was high time to craft a book that at least tried to make heads and tails out of the "new English" that was being spoken by kings and peasants alike. As the golden, imperial age of Latin as the intellectual tongue and as the language of nobility, science and often wealth began to fade, those in England were picking up the scattered, unique pieces of a language that had existed in its earliest guise since the fifth century AD, English.

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