The good people at Oxford UP sent me a review copy of The Oxford History of English Lexicography; they must have been pretty confident I’d like it, because it’s an expensive two-volume set, and their confidence was not misplaced. This is the best reference history I’ve read in a long time, and I feel confident in saying that if you love dictionaries, you need to set some time aside for reading it (assuming you can convince your library to spring for a copy).
OUP’s description says:
Part one of Volume I explores the early development of glosses and bilingual and multilingual dictionaries and examines their influence on lexicographical methods and ideas. Part two presents a systematic history of monolingual dictionaries of English and includes extensive chapters on Johnson, Webster and his successors in the USA, and the OED. It also contains descriptions of the development of dictionaries of national and regional varieties, and of Old and Middle English, and concludes with an account of the computerization of the OED.
The specialized dictionaries described in Volume II include dictionaries of science, dialects, synonyms, etymology, pronunciation, slang and cant, quotations, phraseology, and personal and place names. This volume also includes an account of the inception and development of dictionaries developed for particular users, especially foreign learners of English.
That gives you an idea of the contents, but the only way to show you its excellences is to quote extensively, which I shall do. (I will doubtless be posting further about the book, because I haven’t even finished the first volume yet.)
From the first chapter, Hans Sauer on medieval glosses and glossaries, we learn that “The first author who named his (Latin) compilation Dictionarius was apparently John of Garland (c.1195-c.1272), but this title was slow to catch on. The large and popular Latin dictionaries from the Middle Ages have titles such as Elementarium (i.e. for beginners), Derivationes (i.e. assembling word-families), Catholicon (i.e. a comprehensive collection), Medulla (i.e. the quintessence), etc. … The term ‘dictionary’ came to be used more frequently in the course of the seventeenth century.” Later he tells us that Johannes Balbus of Genoa was “the first lexicographer to achieve complete alphabetization (from the first to the last letter of each word).” Among the delightful trivia Sauer mentions are the “rare Latin lemma… bradigabo (badrigabo) in Épinal-Erfurt 131, the meaning of which is unknown; it was glossed as felduuop (Ép) / felduus (Erf), the meaning of which is also unknown,” and “the so-called ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester'”:
In the first half of the thirteenth century, a monk at Worcester with shaky handwriting entered about 50,000 glosses in about twenty OE manuscripts, partly in early Middle English, but mostly in Latin. Apparently, even in the early thirteenth century, English had changed so much that Old English could no lonager be readily understood and had to be explained. Why the Tremulous Hand took such pains to do this is, however, not quite clear.
From Donna M.T.Cr. Farina and George Durman’s chapter on bilingual dictionaries of English and Russian (yes, there’s an entire chapter on bilingual dictionaries of English and Russian!), we find that “The first English translations from Russian began to appear in the sixteenth century. By contrast, the first Russian translation from English, a geometry textbook, did not appear until 1625… The first English grammar to appear in Russian (1766) was published seventy years after the first Russian grammar was printed in England.” The first Russian lexicographer of English was Prokhor Zhdanov (Прохор Жданов), who in 1772 published a bilingual dictionary as an appendix to an English grammar he translated into Russian, and in 1784 published A New Dictionary English and Russian: Novoĭ slovarʹ Angliskoĭ i Rossīĭskoĭ—which can be perused at Google Books! In discussing the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Farina and Durman say:
The number of English teachers, governesses, and nannies increased; this is recorded in memoirs and travelogues published in Russian and in England, as well as in Russian literature. English merchants in Russia were numerous as well. Nikolai Karamzin (1792) tells how in London he encountered a group of English merchants who had gathered to speak Russian in the coffee house of the stock morket; it turned out that they had lived and done business in Saint Petersburg.
They provide detailed comparisons of the entries on particular words in a number of dictionaries (“A comparison of related entries in Grammatin, Banks, and Alexandrov (Table 6.3.3) demonstrates how the Alexandrov dictionary indicates a word’s ‘shades of meaning'”).
In N.E. Osselton’s chapter on “The Early Development of the English Monoligual Dictionary,” we find that Thomas Blount was “the first English compiler to provide etymologies for all (or nearly all) of the words entered,” and JK’s A New English Dictionary (1702) “established once and for all the practice of including the everyday vocabulary of English alongside ‘harder’ words: his letter D begins with a dab, a dab-chick, a dab-fish, to dabble, a dace, and a daffodell, and at the word girl he starts with the common meaning (‘A Girl, or wench’).” Nathan Bailey, in his Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), “devotes much attention to etymology, but he recognizes that this might put off readers with no knowledge of languages, and explains that the etymological information on each word has been put within square brackets ‘that they may pass it over without any manner of Trouble or Inconvenience’.” Benjamin Martin in 1749 developed the “useful new lexicographical device… of putting unassimilated foreign words such as legerdemain and pronto into italics.” It’s fascinating to me to watch the features of dictionaries that we take for granted come into existence over the centuries. Having taken us through the early 18th century, Osselton ends on this cliffhanger:
In one way or another, the works of the early lexicographers thus came to incorporate much of what we should expect to find in monolingual English dictionaries today. But pronunciation (beyond mere word-stress), the meaning of compound nouns, set collocations, phrasal verbs, particles, abbreviations, idiomatic expressions (other than proverbs), irregular plurals, all kinds of grammatical information—anything like a systematic coverage of these was to be for future generations of dictionary-makers.
I’ve barely scratched the surface, but further tidbits will have to await future entries [2, 3]. I think I’ve given enough material to suggest why I love this book so much that I’ve had to force myself to set it aside to do the editing by which I earn my bread. The book even smells good—not a minor consideration for me! This is a true triumph of scholarship and another feather in the cap for Oxford (I’m very much looking forward to the chapters on the OED).