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Before the computer age

Learn about the evidence base used by the first dictionaries.

The field of lexicography has a long history.

There is no space here for a full account, but we will mention some key dates to give you an idea of the richness of this tradition.

The first evidence of monolingual lexicography dates back to the fourth millennium BC and consists of Sumerian wordlists written in cuneiform on clay tablets, used in teaching the writing system. Over the centuries, ancient civilizations produced various types of lexicographic material. In modern times, the first edition of the Latin Dictionarium was created in 1531 by Robert Estienne and is regarded as the foundational work in modern European lexicography. In 1612 the first edition of the Vocabolario degli accademici della Crusca was published in Florence and set a new standard for a systematic documentation of a living language. The Kangxi dictionary of Chinese was published in 1716, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson published his famous Dictionary of the English Language.

As we saw in Week 1, the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the creation of many of the dictionaries that are still known and in use today, including the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language. One key idea behind large lexicographic projects of the time was that they had to be based on real evidence of the language and not just on intuition, impressions or the content of previous dictionaries. This means that the examples of word use, their definitions and other information, such as registers or geographical use, had to be supported by real language data, typically in the form of written texts.

Let us take an example from English. The history of the largest historical English dictionary, the OED, starts in 1879 with the publication of the first section of the dictionary (covering A to Ant), edited by James Murray. When Murray started the project for what later became the OED, he decided to gather the evidence by appealing to people all around the world and asking them to copy relevant snippets from newspapers, literary texts, journals, etc. These snippets were copied into paper slips or index cards and sent to the dictionary offices for consideration. Here is an example of an index card:

Before the computer age Image 1

Oxford English Dictionary Archive dictionary slip for the word paddock by permission of Oxford University Press

This is a kind of crowdsourcing, which we introduced in Week 1, step 1.9. Once enough information about the different nuances of meaning of a word had been meticulously collected, lexicographers would move on to the task of defining the different meanings and adding quotations typically using the evidence sources.

Can you imagine the number of paper slips needed to compile a large dictionary? Millions. It takes a lot of experience and practice to manage this amount of information and distil this in a clear way so that anyone can understand the meaning and use of a word. In the next activity, we will hear from Michael Proffitt, Chief Editor of the OED, about the role of paper slips and other evidence sources in the OED.


Murray, J. (1884) Oxford English Dictionary Oxford: Oxford University Press

Webster, N. (1828) An American Dictionary of the English Language. New York: S. Converse

© Barbara McGillivary. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Understanding English Dictionaries

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