Origins of ordinary things: A Dictionary

When you do not know the meaning of a word, you can simply look it up in a dictionary to enlighten yourself. By definition, according to Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia, a dictionary is “a collection of words in one or more specific languages, often arranged alphabetically which may include information on definitions, usage, etymologies, pronunciations, and translation”.

The word “dictionary” is attributed to John of Garland. An Englishman, Garland wrote a book Dictionarius to help with the pronunciation of Latin words.

Dictionaries are not a recent invention. According to Let’s Find Out, an online knowledge resource, the oldest dictionary discovered so far was found in Syria and dates to approximately 2300 BC. It was a clay tablet containing Sumerian–Akkadian wordlists.

By 14th Century Common Era (CE) Arabs were already writing words down and organising them according to the alphabetical order of the first letter. However, this was only being done for words from the Qur’an and other special books. According to the New World Encyclopaedia, in Europe, the earliest dictionaries were glossaries of French, Italian or Latin words. The bilingual dictionaries were published to aid the learning of other languages.

Later, other forms of dictionaries were published to explain the meaning of difficult words. According to Britannica, an encyclopaedia, such dictionaries were deemed to be important in education, and for that reason, a few copies could be found tied to a desk in a school so that students could access them.

Early dictionaries were arranged by topic rather than alphabetically. The first person to write an alphabetical dictionary was English school teacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. According to Study, a knowledge resource, the publication was titled “Table Alphabeticall” and contained 2,543 words. However, Cawdrey’s dictionary was found to be unreliable and plagiaristic because it was based on earlier works. 

The first dictionary to be deemed reliable and in closest likeness to the modern dictionary was compiled by British author Samuel Johnson over a period of nine years and completed in 1755. It was titled “Dictionary of the English Language”. According to Mental Floss, an information dissemination platform, Johnson’s dictionary was in use until 1884 when Oxford University Press wrote and released the Oxford English Dictionary which had taken almost 50 years to complete.

Today, there are several dictionaries in place. Some are bilingual and others are monolingual. They can be bought as hard copies, or, using an online search engine, someone can simply type a word and get the meaning in a matter of seconds.

As generations go by, new words are introduced to dictionaries. Some words start out as slang and others are adopted from other languages.