Where Words Take Us – Source

English Language Sources
Oxford University Press published The English Dialect Dictionary, being the complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years. Six volumes between 1898 and 1905.

Source is the word from where we take off this week, and I take the definition most applicable for today’s trek from the Collins COBUILD. A source ‘is a person or book that provides information for a news story or for a piece of research’.

In the context of this definition, I’d like to pay homage to the dictionaries that serve as the source of inspiration for these weekly rambles, the ones from long before the internet, all the way back to the ancient, leather-bound volumes found in the Long Rooms of the world. 

The Oldest Source

So how old would the very first English dictionary be, you ask? According to the British Library, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabetical dates back to 1604. It was an attempt to explain approximately 3000 unfamiliar, ‘hard’ words at a time when trade, travel and innovation rapidly expanded the English language – probably in the same way we experience the expansion of languages in terms of technology. If you are up for a chuckle, go and read Cawdrey’s message To the Reader, a severe critique of the poor English spoken at the time.   

Simon Winchester's account about the origin of the OED as the largest and most comprehensive language source for English
The Professor and the Madman


The tale of the OED's feminine side
The Dictionary of Lost Words

Then, of course, there is the extraordinary tale of the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1857, the Philological Society of London decided it was time for a complete re‑examination of the language and the project developed to such an extent that a New English Dictionary was proposed.

In The Professor and the Madman, Professor James Murray, the editor in chief at the time, issued an appeal to the public to send definitions for inclusion in this ‘book’, which eventually became the ten volumes comprising the first edition OED. Until today, it is deemed by many as the most important source for the English language. Professor Murray discovered that one man, Dr WC Minor, had submitted more than 10 000 words, and when they wanted to honour Dr Minor, the astonishing tale of The Professor and the Madman unfurled, as chronicled by Simon Winchester.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

But there is another narrative woven into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. That is the story of a little girl who spent her childhood under the table in the Scriptorium where her father was one of the lexicographers who collected the definitions for the first OED. She rescues a whole suitcase full of words on slips of paper that are either misplaced or discarded and realises over time that words relating to the experiences of women often go astray. While she works on the OED, she collects these snippets for the Dictionary of Lost Words to reveal a forgotten narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


11 Responses

  1. One tends to forget that there used to be a wealth of information, centuries before the World-wide-Web. Thank you for the reminder. Love your column, Helene.

  2. No Samuel Johnson? Is that because he disparaged women preachers? Or just because he was smug and opinionated in general. Great article, though.

    1. Ah, Dr Johnson. I would like to say make your pick, Mr Keating, but scholarly articles have been written by men and women alike about the untruth of your man’s misogyny and his actual patronage of women, which turns your question into a rather complicated matter for the comment section, and perhaps I shouldn’t take the bait. But thanks for the compliment.

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