Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 15, 2014
Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language

April 15, 1755: Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is published. In June of 1746, a group of London booksellers approached Johnson and asked him to write a dictionary for 1,500 guineas or about £210,000 ($350,000) in today’s money. Dictionaries already existing were simply not up to the task. As more people became literate, a greater number of publications were available and it became economical to also produce a dictionary the masses could afford. With the explosion of printed material, it was necessary to create a set of rules for grammar, definitions, and spellings for the words defined. Johnson thought it would take him about three years to complete a new dictionary – it took nine years, instead.

Over the previous 150 years, there had been over twenty dictionaries published. The oldest was a Latin-English “wordbook” by Sir Thomas Elyot and published in 1538. Sixty years later, an Italian-English dictionary was the first to use quotations as illustrations of word usage. None of these early dictionaries actually included the definition for the English words. Next up was a listing by Robert Cawdrey called “Table Alphabeticall” published in 1604 which made it easier to find the English word one was looking for. It contained 2,449 words and none of them began with the letters w, x, or y. Many more dictionaries were published and by 1721 Nathan Bailey listed 40,000 words in his.

All these remarkable books still did not fit our definition of what a dictionary should be. They were little more than lists, usually poorly organized and poorly researched, of what were considered to be “hard words” which meant they were technical, foreign, obscure, or antiquated. They did not give illustrations of how the words were used in English. Dr. Johnson was given the task of improving on these older books and tried to remedy all these failings from prior works. The hope to get the book into the hands of masses was dashed when the scope of the book was taken into consideration. The English language is full of words. Many words. Too many words.

The book was large and expensive, costing £1,600 – more than Johnson earned to write it. The pages were 18 inches tall an almost 20 inches wide. No bookseller could print it without help. Other than some copies of the Bible, no book of this size had been set to type. There were only 42,773 words included, but they were defined (by synonyms) and illustrated with literary quotations which gave English usage meaning to the words. There were about 114,000 quotations included. Johnson also included notes, sometimes including humor, to give extra shades of meaning to the words. The Oxford English Dictionary, which finally replaced Dr. Johnson’s work, took forty years to complete and contains nearly 750,000 words.

I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words.

Excise: a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words

Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people – all from Samuel Johnson

Also on this day: Going for the Gold – In 1896, the first Modern Olympic Games come to an end.
Cartography – in 1924, Rand McNally published its first atlas.
Leonardo – In 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born.
Sunk – In 1912, the Titanic sunk.

Hablo Español

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 16, 2012

Antonio de Lebrija

January 16, 1492: Antonio de Lebrija writes a grammar of Castilian Spanish for Queen Isabella. The book’s title was Gramática de la lengua castellana. Antonio was classically educated and completed his studies at Bologna University in Italy. He returned home to Spain and spread classical learning to his countrymen. At the time, Latin was the language of the educated. His work with the Castilian language was instrumental in the switch from the ancient to the more modern tongue. Gramática is credited with being the first published grammar of any Romance language.

Spanish itself is a dialect of Latin developed on the Iberian Peninsula. The language continues its 1,000 years of evolution even today. Spanish is now the official language of about 20 countries around the world. As Spanish explorers and colonization teams spread outward, they brought their language with them. They also embraced native words, expanding the lexicon. Spanish is spoken in most countries of the Americas, the Philippines, and Equatorial Guinea.

Spanish is a two gender language with conjugated verbs but without noun declension. Two gender languages assign genders to nouns regardless of whether or not the noun can be considered male or female. Another term for this is “noun class.” In Spanish grammar the gender or class of the noun dictates the modifier associated with the noun. There are seven tenses of verbs that mostly correlate with English verbs. The six different Spanish spellings of the tenses tend to confuse English speakers. In each Spanish speaking country, the language has evolved slightly – just as the UK and the US speak different forms of English.

Romance languages are a branch of Indo-European languages that descended from Latin. There are more than 700 million worldwide speakers of Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, or Romanian. These languages evolved from Vulgar Latin or Latin as spoken in the streets – vernacular language – rather than the more formal speech of the educated classes. These languages developed by region but share many properties with each other as well as a vocabulary of Latin-based words. The Romance has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, but refers to speaking in a Roman manner.

Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it. – Christopher Morley

Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain. – Lily Tomlin

The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand. – Lewis Thomas

Language is the source of misunderstandings. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Also on this day:

Prohibition – In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified.
Hi – In 1964, Hello, Dolly! took Broadway by storm.
Grote Mandrenke – In 1362, a storm tide in the North Sea flood the German city, Rungholt.

Look It Up

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 19, 2010

Murray and the OED

April 19, 1928: The last fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] is published. The OED was published in smaller pieces called fascicles – 125 of them. Each fascicle was anywhere from 64 to 352 pages long. Each new letter began with a new fascicle.

The latest version of the printed OED was published in 1989 with approximately 301,100 main entries, 157,000 combinations, and 169,000 phrases or 616,500 word-forms. There are over 350 million printed characters in the 21,730 pages. Thomas Browne is the most frequently quoted source for neologisms or new words. William Shakespeare is the author most often quoted and Hamlet is the most-quoted work. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is the most frequently cited woman. The Bible is the most quoted collective work while Cursor Mundi (an anonymous Middle English religious poem) is the most-quoted single work.

This all started when the Philological Society of London became so dissatisfied with the current dictionaries they planned to compile their own dictionary. The leaders of this enterprise were Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall.

Trent’s career didn’t leave him enough time to actually work on the project. Coleridge published his plan for the work on May 12, 1860. The first sample pages were published in April, 1861. Tragically, Coleridge died later that month at the age of 31. Furnivall took over the editorship, but didn’t have the temperament for the long-term project.

James Murray took over the editorship in the 1879. He moved to Oxford where the university agreed to finance the publishing of the book as well as pay Murray. On February 1, 1884 [24 years later] the first fascicle was published. Ten years later, 11 fascicles [up to and including the letter E] were published. Murray was editor until his death in 1915. Sixty-eight years after the start of the project, the 125th fascicle was published with the full dictionary in bound volumes following.

“If you have a big enough dictionary, just about everything is a word.”  –  Dave Barry

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” – Noah Webster

“DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.” – Ambrose Bierce from Devil’s Dictionary

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Also on this day, in 1943 Albert Hofmann experimented with LSD.

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Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 28, 2010

Words, words, words

February 28, 1939: The word “dord” is discovered lurking in the Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition even though no such word exists. An investigation followed.

Austin M. Patterson sent a slip of paper into the editorial staff on July 31, 1931, stating “D or d, cont./density.” What was suppose to have happened was this: in the earlier editions of the dictionary, abbreviations were scattered throughout the listings in alphabetical order. Thus lb. as an abbreviation for pound would be found after the entry for the word lazy. However in the newer addition, all abbreviations were to be grouped separately.

Patterson, a chemistry editor, was trying to get the d to be recognized as the abbreviation for density in Physics and Chemistry. There was a miscommunication between the various people working on this entry and the “D or d” was read as “Dord” and the definition was added. Since there was no etymology or usage given, it was investigated and the word was immediately deleted from all further printing. The fact that this is even an issue is a testament to the vigilance and dedication of the people compiling dictionaries.

Dictionaries were first simple word lists and existed as early as 2300 BC. The earliest modern European dictionaries were translations of words from one language to one or several others. In 1604 Robert Cawdrey authored the first purely English dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall. No definitions were included. In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language hit the market. Finally in 1884, the first fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. It wasn’t until 1928 that the dictionary was finally completed and the twelfth fascicle was finished.

“I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven” – Samuel Johnson

“Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

“DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.” – Ambrose Bierce

“Facts are not science – as the dictionary is not literature.” – Martin H. Fischer

Also on this day, in 1827 the B&O Railroad was granted a charter and came into existence.

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