Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coventry June 1604 (The early joys of dictionaries)

27th to be precise
Robert Cawdrey (who?) signs the epistle to his book:

A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsual English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, latine or French.


Which will be published in London.

The first monolingual English dictionary, with "hard usual words" set out in alphebetical order. Hard to imagine how revolutionary the idea was. The attempt was not to explain all words, just the hard ones. As simon Winchester pointed out when Shakespeare was writing, he could consult books on history. There were atlases, prayer books, missals, biographies, romances and pamphlets. There were guides to rhetoric. There was even a book he could use to check his classical allusions. But he had no way to find out if his use of the word Consanguineous meant what he thought it did. Nor could his audience, on hearing the word, go home and find out what it meant by consulting a dictionary.

No dictionary. No coffee. He do it the hard way.

Consanguinity is in Cawdrey. Not that his little book was always so useful.

Crocodile. beast.

However Cawdrey's book was so novel that he had to explain why he'd written it. He also had to explain to the reader how it was set out:

If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand and to profit by this table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of Letters as they stand, perfectly without booke, and where every Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end. Nowe if the word which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (Ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of the letter (c).

(yes he does spell beginning two different ways.)

The book has only recently (2007) been given a modern printing. It's the beginning of the great tradition of English Dictionaries (what little that's known of Cawdrey suggests he was as awkward and odd as you'd expect which is another part of the tradition) ) ; but what a beginning, and in Coventry too.

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