Jack Lynch, an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers, gave a talk in 2005 on “How Johnson’s Dictionary Became the First Dictionary,” going into the amusing and instructive history of the mistaken notion, doggedly repeated for centuries now, that Johnson’s was the “first English dictionary.” He says “If we adjust our criteria and allow ‘the first dictionary’ to mean ‘the first standard dictionary’ — the first one widely perceived as an authoritative standard — then Johnson’s does seem to become number one. In fact there are hints that Johnson’s was the first authoritative dictionary in writings published even before Johnson was born…” and decides “in this sense it may be true, for Johnson’s was the first dictionary about which such grand pronouncements were made.”

All this is very interesting, but apparently he kept mulling over the issues, and last year produced an even richer article, “Disgraced by Miscarriage: Four and a Half Centuries of Lexicographical Belligerence” (abstract, pdf, HTML cache). He starts with the same observation about Johnson’s elusive primacy, but quickly goes in a different direction:

I suspect the very category of “a good dictionary” means nothing to many people.

But it has meant an awful lot to the people who write those dictionaries. One might think lexicographers are a meek and retiring lot, but history shows that they can be surprisingly truculent. Today I would like to describe some of the quarrels that have made the history of English dictionaries so fascinating for almost half a millennium. During that time lexicographers have engaged in countless altercations, and they’ve been known to get nasty—their debates are sometimes little more dignified than knife fights. Johnson himself noted, “Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach,” and few even manage that; the usual lot of the dictionary writer is “to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect.” …

It may seem funny today, but seventeenth-century tempers often flared. One of the more bloodthirsty lexicographical rivalries began in 1656, when Thomas Blount published the biggest English dictionary to date, Glossographia. Two years later there appeared A New World of English Words, compiled by Edward Phillips, nephew of the poet John Milton. Phillips’s title picks up on some of the excitement of the discovery of the real New World, which was still a comparatively novel subject in 1658—this is before there was a permanent European settlement in New Jersey, when New Brunswick was still an unsettled region known by the unappealing name of Prigmore’s Swamp. Phillips, however, soon found himself in an ethical swamp of his own making, because his New World of English Words was not as new as he made it out to be—many of the entries were lifted straight out of Blount’s Glossographia. Blount, unamused, responded with a peevish pamphlet, A World of Errors Discovered in the New World of Words. …

Dictionaries, in other words, have been stealing from one another for a long time, and it continues even now. Today it is considered bad form to lift whole entries out of a rival’s dictionary, but everyone looks to the competition for guidance. This approach does have some risks, though—for one, it tends to perpetuate errors. Sometimes they are intentional, part of a long tradition of clever frauds in reference books.

And he goes on to discuss the kind of copyright traps (sometimes known as “Mountweazels”) I discussed here.

He mentions the fact that the earliest dictionaries concerned themselves exclusively with “hard words”:

Of course, Johnson’s Dictionary contains many of these hard words, and for word lovers they can be delightful. There you’ll find nidification, meaning “the act of building nests,” and gemelliparous, “bearing twins.” Scrabble players will delight in words like ophiophagous (“Serpent-eating”), galericulate (“Covered as with a hat”), or decacuminated (“Having the top cut off”). But Johnson was not entirely comfortable with them: “I am not always certain,” he said, “that they are read in any book but the works of lexicographers” (preface, pp. 87–88). He was right. Consider the word naulage, which appears in nearly a hundred books in the eighteenth century alone. The problem is that every one of those books is a dictionary. They all tell us that naulage means the fee paid to carry freight by sea, but there’s no indication the word was ever used even by those paid to carry freight by sea.

(I suspect he’s not a Scrabble player, or he’d know those words are too long for the game.) He proceeds to discuss the difficulty of defining “easy” words, the impact of American nationalism on Webster’s dictionaries and U.S. spelling, and the “lexicographical firestorm” over Webster’s Third, but I’ll let you read all that for yourself. Thanks go to aldiboronti at for the link.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    I missed the Mountweazel thread on its first go-round, but I know plenty of musicians are convinced a certain music publishing company’s inexpensive editions are pirated, because they include obvious errors; the assumption is that the cheap editions were basically photocopied from expensive ones with musical Mountweazels in them.

  2. Thanks for the pointer to Lynch’s paper, which sounds like a fun read. Blackadder’s “Ink and Incapability”, featuring Dr Johnson and his dictionary, now sounds less fictional than it did before I read your post. Your mention of Mountweazels also got me wondering. I have two questions for the professional linguists here: Have any mountweazels escaped their cages and become “real” words? If not, why not? Especially in the case of something as potentially useful as esquivalience.

  3. Not all of those long words are impossible to play in Scrabble—just too long to play in one move. You’d have to build off another word, which of course isn’t possible for all the cited words.
    Great post, though.

  4. Lynch’s paper is great fun, thanks. Rex Stout used the controversy over the Webster’s Third as a plot point in one of his Nero Wolfe novels in which Wolfe has ordered a copy of the dictionary for the sole purpose of tearing it sheet by sheet to burn in his fireplace. Sadly, I don’t recall which book it is.

  5. “decacuminated” could be constructed off “cumin” in the chance of a stray letter to either side.
    You should always be prepared in scrabble and war.

  6. John Emerson says

    OT: The useful Rasulid Hexaglot glossary (14th century Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol) can now be had for a mere $143.28.

  7. John Emerson says
  8. Presumably the “first” English dictionary is meant? The Chinese character dictionary _Erya_ 爾雅 was produced in the 3rd century BCE and the Chinese character dictionary _Shuowen Jiezi_ 說文解字, in the 2nd century CE. We seem to not pay attention to Asia sometimes–e.g., Diderot’s encyclopedia was predated by Korean encyclopedias and moveable type was invented well before Gutenberg, again by the Chinese while the Koreans were the first to cast metal moveable type.

  9. Michael Prytz says

    Decacuminated makes twenty-five appearances in Google Books, of which twenty-three are dictionary entries. It makes one appearance in Google Scholar: in Lynch’s paper!

  10. John Emerson says

    Chinese dictionary words sometimes do come back to life, and not only in Occidental Orientalism.

  11. It’s Gambit. It wasn’t really a plot point, but it’s fun; it was the intro and Wolfe being his usual opinionated self. Archie tell the client, “Mr. Wolfe is in the middle of the a fit. It’s complicated. There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language….”
    “Do you use contact as a verb?” Wolfe demands of the client, who (luckily) answers “No” so he is allowed to hire Wolfe.
    Archie also points out the Wolfe knew he was going to burn it when he bought it, since he didn’t order a leather-bound edition. That’s planning ahead.

  12. Gambit (1962) is the Nero Wolfe novel with the Webster’s Third burning.

  13. I’m sorry to have mantled The Ridger’s posting. I blame Webster’s Fourth.

  14. Maybe “naulage” began life as a typo for “haulage”?

  15. No, it’s based on Latin naulum ‘passage money, fare.’

  16. Terry Collmann says

    I’d just like to say, a propos of not very much, that one of my favourite film lyric moments is Bing Crosby singing: “Like Webster’s dictionary, we’re Morocco-bound”.

  17. Yes, I’ve always loved that line.

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