Lexicographers and other wordsmiths

Writers are wordsmiths, whether they are following the Queen’s English (“educated British”) or American Standard English (“professional style”) or the slang of contemporary music.

This post is inspired by the recent deaths of two wordsmiths: one is the prominent Irish poet, Eavan Boland who shook up the poetical male field with her focus on a personal and feminine vocabulary usually missing from the men’s work; the other is the scholar and collector of dictionaries, Madeline Kripke, self-taught lexicographer who had amassed one of the largest private collections of dictionaries (over 20,000), ranging from a 1502 Latin dictionary to a 1980s guide to pickpocket slang (produced by the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority).

As used in reference to Kripke, lexicography refers to the 20th century field consisting of the systematic study of dictionaries as objects of scientific interest themselves. She was known not just for acquiring these works, but for her knowledge and scholarship of the books and their authors; for instance, as Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Kripke “could tell you the editor’s personality based on the changes made across varying editions of a work” (NY Times).

Conventionally, a lexicographer is defined as a person who compiles dictionaries. Two famous names come to mind – Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, both referenced in the post on the history of English grammar instruction.

Today we understand a dictionary as a listing of words, usually arranged alphabetically, and usually including information on definitions, usage, etymologies, and pronunciations.

In that same blog post, we talked about Robert Lowth who wrote an early textbooks to teach “proper” English grammar (1763). Early dictionaries, perhaps like the 1502 Latin dictionary Kripke owned, were compiled to help students learn a language.  

The first recorded dictionaries date back to Sumerian times (c. 2300 BCE). These were bilingual dictionaries, which serve immediate needs of translating from one language to another. In England, some of the earliest of these dictionaries appeared in the 16th century, such as English and Latin or English and French.

By the 17th century, dictionaries soon evolved into list of words, in particular “hard words” dictionaries, which attempted to explain in simple form many of the new words that were entering the English language. In the post on the history and influence and English language, we discussed how plastic or flexible English is, absorbing and borrowing word from education (Latin and Greek, hypotenuse) and travel in far off lands (pangolin, a mammal found in Asia and Africa). This period was an era of great change for the English language. For example, according to records in the Oxford English Dictionary, the number of words more than doubled between 1500 and 1650 (oed.com).

Thus, the earliest English dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall (1604) by Robert Cawdray, consisted “of hard usuall English wordes” compiled for “Ladies . . . or any other unskilfull persons.” Such dictionaries became popular with the rise of a middle class who wanted “to convey an impression of fine learning” (The Story of English 133). By the middle of the 17th century, wordlists were being expanded to be more general dictionaries, including just everyday words, regional terms and slang. (British authors, like Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), noting the “corruptions” of English language – jargon, contractions, and vogue words vs. refined academic ones – lobbied for a national Academy as France and Italy had to “fix” the language and settle arguments about usage.)

It was not until 1755 when Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language that a more reliable English dictionary was produced.  Indeed, it was considered the pre-eminent and the first “modern” dictionary for nearly 150 years until the Oxford English Dictionary began publishing.

Consisting of more than 40,000 words, Johnson’s work contained textual references for most words, using literary quotations (from Elizabethan works up to those of his time) to illustrate the meaning of a word. In addition, while his predecessors had been more prescriptive in their approach, Johnson was descriptive, treating “English very practically, as a living language, with many different shades of meaning” (Story 134). Consider his entry for the word heart:

Heart: The muscle which by its contraction ad dilation propels the blood through the course of circulation . . . . It is supposed in popular language to be the seat sometimes of courage, sometimes of affection.

Then to illustrate, Johnson listed four quotations, three from Shakespeare’s play, and this one from Philip Sidney: “He with providence and courage so passed over all, that the mother took such spiteful grief at it, that her heart brake.”

He also used humor. For the entry on “lexicographer,” Johnson wrote this: “A harmless drudge who busies himself in tracing the origins and detailing the significance of words.”

Johnson gives 12 definitions for thought.


Johnson also addressed proponents of an Academy in his Preface: “With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders: but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain: sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints.”

It took Johnson 9 years with the help of 6 scribes to produce his dictionary (but no other scholars and no patrons subsidizing the work). However, it took 40 French academicians 40 years to produce the first French national dictionary. Johnson provides his own assessment of the work as “setting the orthography, displaying the analogy, regulating the structures, and ascertaining the significations of English words” (Story 135).

The Oxford English Dictionary, which replaced Johnson’s dictionary as the English language standard, was produced in short installments written by the Oxford University Press, beginning in 1884 and took nearly 50 years to complete (oed.com).

Johnson received almost immediate praise and was even given a pension from King George III, making his life much easier. But the “Father of the American Dictionary,” Noah Webster, did not experience success and acclaim with his dictionary, even with a second edition, and he died in debt, “unrecognized and unapplauded” (Story 242).

However, Webster, who came of age during the American Revolution, is recognized “as influential in the story of American English as George Washington was in the narrative of the American Revolution” (Story 240). Webster had declared the independence of the American language from “Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard” (qtd in Diamond).

Earlier, Webster had gained success with the publication of three elementary books on English. Issued under the title A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the books were a grammar, a reader, and a speller – the third being the “Blue-Backed” American Speller, “a runaway bestseller, selling over eighty million copies in Webster’s lifetime” (Story 240-41). Intent on forging a distinct identity for the American language, as well as introducing uniformity and accuracy, he altered spellings and accentuated differences in meaning and pronunciation of many words; for example, color for colour, theater for theatre, defense for defence, and tire for tyre.

His An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, was part of his program to standardize the American language. In addition to the Americanized spellings, Webster documented distinctly American vocabulary, with words such as skunk, hickory, and chowder. With 70,000 entries, it was felt to surpass Johnson’s work “not only in scope but in authority as well” (merriam-webster.com). Though not initially successful, his dictionaries came to dominate the English world because many other dictionaries copied or relied heavily on Webster’s text and style. In addition, following Webster’s death in 1843, Merriam printers and booksellers acquired the rights from his heirs to revise and publish Webster’s Dictionary, and it has been continually published uninterrupted through the present at Merriam-Webster.   

Language is fluid – a point I’ve made often in this blog – and as these lexicographers and others have noted. Dictionaries like Merriam-Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary are constantly updating themselves with new entries reflecting slang and vocabulary from contemporary culture, technology, and other innovations. Much of their information is available online.

Wordsmiths like writers can mine these print and electronic resources, as many writers before them have done. In fact, the poet Emily Dickinson is said to have used Webster’s 1844 edition as her source of vocabulary. When you’re looking for just the right word, it would be good to consult with another wordsmith like a lexicographer.

(Boland obituary; Kripke obituary; oed.com; McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, The Story of English; Diamond, “The History and Significance of Dictionaries”; merriam-webster.com.)

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