Dictionaries

What could be more fascinating than a book about words?  Those heavy tomes with their columns of spellings, definitions, etymologies, and if you’re lucky a little picture to go with it.

OK so maybe dictionaries aren’t everyone’s idea of a good read, but some of them can be quite interesting.

Traditionally a dictionary is an alphabetical list of words used in a particular language.  They give pronunciation guides and all the information listed above, and provide the opportunity to exponentially augment one’s vocabulary.

The earliest known dictionaries come from the Akkadian Empire discovered in Ebla – now Syria – and dating to 2300BCE.  The earliest English dictionaries were essentially glossaries of French or Latin words with the definitions in English.  This is where the word ‘dictionary’ derives, from the 1220 publication of John of Garland’s Dictionarius intended to assist with Latin diction.

Samuel Johnson, an English lexicographer and sufferer of Tourette Syndrome, wrote A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.  Although English dictionaries had been published earlier they were limited and far from definitive, but Johnson’s was credited as the first noteworthy and reliable dictionary produced.  This dictionary was used for the next 150 years until the Oxford University Press began publishing their own in 1884.

But what started as a serious endeavour has, as human nature tends to at times, turned into an opportunity to laugh and ‘alternative’ dictionaries are now commonly available.

Some list words that were once commonplace and are now no longer used.  For example, Groak: to silently stare at someone as they are eating in the hopes they will give you some of their food.

Some are completely fictitious, such as Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff which attributes definitions to place names in England.  For example, Cromarty: the brittle sludge which clings to the top of ketchup bottles.

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Bryce’s Smallest English Dictionary and carry case

And of course the token tiny dictionary, a much-condensed version printed in miniscule text and often mounted in handy keyrings.  The image here is of Bryce’s Smallest English Dictionary which measures just 26x19mm and comes with a handy carry case.

Not to mention the annual contest of what words will be allowed in.  This year the Oxford English Dictionary permitted Twerk: a dance performed to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance.

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An excerpt from the Cockney Rhyming Slang dictionary

The Museum’s edition of the dictionary of Cockney Rhyming Slang would be very useful if you’re planning a New Year’s trip abroad.  We hope you enjoy reading this linen draper. Did Santa bring you army rocks, or did you get a macaroni?  Take it easy on the Brian O’Linn and Jack O’Dandy this New Years.

 

By Sandi Black, Archivist

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