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Early English Dictionaries

Lexicography is an ancient occupation; dictionaries of many sorts were produced in China, Greece, Islam, and other complex early cultures. The 13th-century Dictionarius of John of Garland is the first recorded use of the term to mean word list. Nathan Bailey (d. 1742) was the author of three English dictionaries so much more comprehensive and consistent than any of their predecessors as rightly to be considered the first examples of modern lexicography. His Universal Etymological English Dictionary was published in 1721; his larger dictionary, Dictionarium Britannicum, was published in 1730. An interleaved copy of this larger work was used by Samuel Johnson in preparing the two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, which appeared in 1755. Johnson's definitions evince his scholarship, humor, judgment, and skill and are basic to later lexicography. William Kenrick, who published a dictionary in 1773, was first to indicate pronunciation with diacritical marks (see accent) and to divide words according to their syllables. The dictionary of Thomas Sheridan (1721–88), an actor, was published in 1780, and the dictionary of John Walker (1732–1807), also an actor, in 1791. In both these dictionaries special care was given to pronunciation, as to which, for many years, Walker's authority received more deference than it merited.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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