Birth of the Dictionary
When Shakespeare Was Shaxberd
by Sue Wilkinson
Director of Communications and Marketing, Historic St. Mary’s City Commission
When William Shakespeare crafted his lyrical “O, Loves best habit’s in a soothing toung” or when Cecil Calvert recommended “libertie of conscience” for Maryland settlers, they wrote without the benefit of a printed guide to English words. You see, there wasn’t much demand for dictionaries or thesauruses because few of Shakespeare and Calvert’s 17th-century contemporaries were able to read and write.
Those who could write might spell the same word differently throughout a single document and the name of a single individual might appear in dozens of forms. Almost two dozen variations of “Shakespeare” have been recorded in reference to the bard, from “Shakespeare” to “Shagspere” to “Shaxberd.” The name of St. Mary’s City entrepreneur Garrett Van Sweringen has been discovered in over 40 variations! Even his own signature was inconsistent. You can imagine the debate that went into signage for Historic St. Mary’s City’s new Van Sweringen exhibit.
One of the particular challenges in learning about the distant past is the eyewitnesses aren’t around to interview. The closest we can get to the source are any writings that have survived.
While efforts to record words date back 4,000 years to ancient Syria, it wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that a truly reliable alphabetized English dictionary was available. It emerged from works like Robert Cawdrey’s 2,500-word A Table Alphabeticall. . . .of hard unusual English Words, borrwed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c . . gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull person
, which was published in 1604. A Table
was the first alphabetical English word list and it featured handy words like duarchy (the equall raigne of two princes together) and simonie (when spirituall matters are bought and solde for money). Cawdrey’s list evolved from French-, Latin-, and Italian-English translation guides and later categorized word lists—which leads you to wonder, how would you look up emu
if you didn’t know whether it was an animal, vegetable, or mineral? Throughout the 17th century, ever more extensive dictionaries were published; but most focused on “hard, unusual words” found in the overblown prose of those writing to impress.
By the turn of the 18th century, literary figures including Daniel Defoe were calling for a ministry to govern and standardize the English language. Gulliver’s Travels
author Jonathan Swift railed against the use of Cant (a secret language used by thugs) and slang words like couldn’t
that were appearing in print. They believed that English had reached its highest form and should be fixed as is. France, Germany, and Italy had long since instituted official standards for their languages. Despite their efforts, however, a national arbiter of language was never established in England.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson documented 43,500 words using illuminating quotes (many from Shakespeare) and complete definitions in A Dictionary of the English Language. His remained the English-language standard until early in the 20th century. In the “English” spellings fixed in Johnson’s dictionary, you can find evidence of the Germanic roots of Middle English, embellished by the Norman Conquest in 1066 when the French imposed their tongue on the realm. Johnson captures Latin and Greek words imported during the Renaissance, when learned people turned to the classics to describe new concepts with no English equivalents. His Dictionary reflects the tendency of 15th-century printers to add letters to words; sometimes to make print columns line up neatly and sometimes to increase revenue, as they were paid by the line. It immortalizes misspellings by foreign printers that were adopted into common use, as books with inconsistent spelling were used to teach reading and writing. The Dictionary also evidences the influence of exploration and colonization on the English language. Johnson included words imported from the Americas, such as “canoe/canoa,” “maize,” “tobacco,” and “guaiacum,” a cure for syphilis and reportedly the first word imported, after being Latinized into English, from the New World. Johnson is sometimes accused of injecting a little too much attitude into his work. His definition for “oats” “– A grain, wich in England is generally given to horfes, but in Scotland fupports the people – is often cited. Johnson fixed English spellings with all their chaotic influences, leaving us to spell by dictionary and by memory, rather than by the way a word sounds: “ear” and “early,” “dumb” and “rum,” “simple” and “symbol,” “tour” and “sour,” “deceit” and “receipt.” You say “potato,” I say “patattah,” so how shall we spell it?
The turning point in lexicography began when the London Philological Society called for efforts to remedy “. . . Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries.” The book The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recounts the calling for an inventory of the entirety of the English language in use, its history, its biography. The resultant 12-volume tome, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was assembled by thousands of volunteers and documented almost a half-million words along with their meanings, origins, spelling, and pronunciations. It took 70 years to complete after work was begun in 1884 and remains the most comprehensive and trusted English language dictionary, with revisions and updates added quarterly. Today’s word count tops 600,000.
Early dictionaries provide useful insights into early writings, best tempered by input from today’s experts. The interpretation of “ye olde” writing, spelling, and meanings is an industry unto itself, spawning countless doctoral dissertations, and decades-long debates among researchers. I am grateful for their efforts as I do my work. It’s one thing to read centuries-old writings for enjoyment. There is a certain beauty to the antique language when you can let the words flow on their own rhythm into your conscious, words accumulating like so many snowflakes into a palpable drift of meaning. On the other hand, mining the writings of Maryland’s founders word by word to understand their world view and vision yields questions that dictionaries sometimes fail to address. I need context, perspective, the experts. The closing of a letter written by Cecil Calvert offers a fun diversion, an opportunity for a trip to the dictionaries. He wrote, “I am wishing you all Health and Happiness, with peculiar Esteem.” Peculiar esteem? That’s a weird word to choose, to my 21st-century eyes. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the word: A meaning of “unusual” was first recorded in 1608; “special characteristic” in 1646; “an oddity” in 1777. Maybe Cawdrey’s 1604 Table, available online (!), can help. Cawdry suggests “proper, or specially belonging.” Is that what he meant?
Ask the experts! Historic St. Mary’s City’s director of research Henry Miller reminds us, “Words, definitions and spellings are not fixed. In the 17th century, “peculiar Esteem” was a positive, respectful expression. As some scholars have argued “the past is a foreign Country”. Certainly that is true in aspects of our language. Beware the student who interprets historic documents using the meanings of the iPod, internet-saturated, blog-driven age.”
Many thanks to Ed Gates, a career lexicographer, for sharing his ideas and his library. (Dr. Gates is the father of
Maryland Dove captain Will Gates, who recently retired to Solomons, Maryland.)