Top 10 dictionaries | Reference and language works


Teighteenth-century popular lexicographer Nathaniel Bailey struggled with certain definitions. When it came to “spider”, he got on with it, with “a well-known insect”. Mind you, he had already dug through his reference file and told us that a cherry was “a well-known fruit”. Nowadays, dictionaries are, for the most part, serious, sober documents, with little room for excitement. Corn words are fun; language is fun. The Word Detective is my story of how a naive student of English literature with an inherent mistrust of old-school college landed an editorial position in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1976, and gradually became engrossed in them. people, friendships, words, places and how OED has gradually adapted to the digital age.

These are 10 books that have helped me along the way and have shown me that I was not the first person to discover that there is more to lexicography than it seems.

1. that of Robert Cawdrey A table in alphabetical order (1604)
English dictionaries did not exist until 1604, which is why schoolmaster Cawdrey led the way. It did not produce what might be considered a dictionary. He left out all the easy words you already know (there is some meaning to that) and focused on the “hard words”. Worse yet, he wrote it for “the benefit and help of ladies, gentlemen or other disqualified persons” who had neglected to follow a formal or high school education, but who needed to know the meaning of opilation (judgment ) and saboth (from rest). But Cawdrey got off to a good start: the first step is said to be the hardest.

2. BE’s new canting crew dictionary (1699)
The streets of major British cities were teeming with thugs and vagabonds in the 17th century, at least until BE – the forever unknown compiler who only ever revealed those initials – and his publisher would have us believe it. Capitalizing on this, BE’s dictionary gave the book-buying public a first chance to decode the spooky language of ‘hardy beggars’ (legally able-bodied beggars) or homeless and jobless soldiers returning from European wars: famble -cheats (“Gold rings, or gloves”), member-cup (“a chamber pot”). Buy this and never be ripped off again!

3. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Johnson had little truck, at least in his dictionary, with the talk of ordinary people: on all fours (“a low card game”); crack (“a whore; in low parlance” and also “a boastful: it is only a low sentence”). But her agenda has shifted from writing a dictionary showing the English language in its heyday to a dictionary that captures the language as it evolves. And he was not opposed, as we know, to the strange subjective definition: “excise: an odious tax levied on goods, and judged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom the excise is paid ”. Naughty lexicography.

4. Oxford English Dictionary (1884-)
Our largest dictionary (I would say that) was designed as a comprehensive index of English, containing all the words and meanings ever used. Nineteenth-century publishers soon realized that this was too ambitious a goal: there was far too much esoteric scientific vocabulary, for example, that the ordinary educated guy just didn’t need to know. So they left it out. But the dictionary quickly established itself to include a vast array of English of all types: formal, slang, British, American, South African, etc., and set the stage for national dictionaries around the world.

5. Hobson-Jobson by Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell (1886)
This dictionary of Raj’s English has been cleverly titled to give the impression that it was compiled by MM. Hobson and Jobson. In fact, Hobson-Jobson is an anglicization of an anguished Muslim cry uttered “in the procession of the Mo-harram”. The Anglo-Indian language was fading when Yule and Burnell compiled their lively and discursive collection, but it remains to be remembered today of the remarkable and often problematic interaction between the British imperialists and the Indian population at large before Partition. It is both a lot of fun and educational. Where else would you find a hosbolhookum (an official document issued by royal authorization)?

“The Language As It Has Changed”… a copy of Samuel Johnson Johnson’s dictionary. Photograph: Alamy

6. Passing English of the Victorian Era by James Redding Ware (1909)
Ware enjoyed the camaraderie of London Freemasonry and acting clubs in the late 19th century. Mostly, he haunted music halls, especially south of the river, noting and preserving for us the vibrant street expressions he heard all around him. His dictionary, unfortunately published only a few weeks before his death, sparkles with idioms that have passed under the radar of standard dictionaries: What ho! she works! (“A satirical cry against any display of vigor – especially feminine”), temporarily made famous by a popular song; cloddy, a denigration of the “dog market” meaning “aristocratic in appearance”. Dr Johnson would have shuddered.

7. Burgess Unabridged by Frank Gelett Burgess (1914)
Burgess captioned his reference book “a new dictionary of words you’ve always needed”. He claimed to have collected the slang of 1915. Burgess found Webster a little boring and “Mrs Century” (the magnificent dictionary of the century) a little better. It offers a description and comfortable line drawing of the huzzlecoo (“An intimate conversation” or “a flirt”), elaborates on quoobs (misfits) and recoils from dogmix (“an unpleasant, uncomfortable or dirty occupation… The type of dogmix is ​​cleaning the fish”).

8. The Pirate Dictionary (1971)
It was the cult benchmark for computer geeks when I first got involved with computers and dictionaries in the 1980s. Its title dates back to the days when hacking meant nothing but an enthusiast. angry computer, nor an international criminal. The Hacker’s Dictionary was not published in book form at the time, but existed underground on vast computer systems. Nerds would check out the latest uses and email editors if they thought they had found or (modestly) invented a new one. It was a wiki before we had wikis, back when you needed to know awk (“(UNIX techspeak) an interpreted language for massaging text data. [etc, and then a bit more etc.]”). It’s published now, so it’s part of the general public.

9. Robert Allen’s Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Publishers (1981)
This is my favorite edition of my favorite dictionary which characterizes me as a desperate dictionary nerd. It only contains information that you could be wrong (St. and St., for example: who is “holy” and who is “street”?). It is an acquired taste.

10. The urban dictionary (1999-)
You go here to find out what a dictionary might have looked like in another dimension. Many things are perfect, but many are impressionists. The problem is, you can’t always tell which is what. It saved me a few times (newspaper articles incorporating police slang that hadn’t come to me before), and lost me to others. I like its dictionary definition of suburb (“a place where suburban children go to look for definitions of urban terms and expressions”). As the dictionary reminds us, the “Urban Dictionary is only a subset of a truly Urban Dictionary, ideally designed”.

John Simpson’s The Word Detective is published by Little, Brown for £ 18.99. It’s available from the Guardian Bookstore for £ 15.57 including postage.


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