One of the first reference books young students are introduced to is the dictionary. This powerful book contains (almost) all of the words you will use throughout your life. Troubled spellers can find the correct order of letters, and non-native speakers will find clues to pronunciation. However, most people don’t have a dog-eared copy of a dictionary on their desk anymore, and word lovers and learners are increasingly turning to the internet. Let’s take a look back at how the English dictionary has evolved over the years.
Samuel Johnson, an extremely accomplished writer of his time, spent nine years working on his dictionary, "A Dictionary of the English Language." Once published in 1755, the dictionary was both comprehensive and concise, containing textual references for words and arranged alphabetically. Johnson had completed his dictionary almost single-handedly, using only an occasional clerk for illustrations and a small staff of secretaries. Unfortunately for Johnson, his dictionary was just simply too big. "A Dictionary of the English Language" was published in four volumes, which, when stacked together, reached over 10 inches tall and weighed over 21 pounds. Johnson took many liberties with his definitions, often inserting his own wit and satire. Johnson even defined his own profession as a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge.” While "A Dictionary of the English Language" wasn't perfect, it served as the prominent standard for over 150 years.
The "Oxford English Dictionary" started its humble beginnings in the dissatisfied grumblings of the members of the English Philological Society in 1844. It wasn't until 1878 that editors of the dictionary successfully convinced Oxford University Press to invest in their endeavors. To compile and define words, the Society appealed to newspaper readers to send in "quotation slips," or examples of words used in a variety of settings. Once advertised, quotation slips came pouring it at an average of 1,000 reports a day.
Finally, in 1884, Oxford published the first volume of "A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by the Philological Society." Thankfully, the wordy title was shortened to the "Oxford English Dictionary." Published letter by letter, the dictionary wasn't fully finished until 1928 after numerous editors and plenty of backroom arguments.
Not wanting to reprint the entire dictionary, OUP released the second edition as supplemental volumes. Realizing that the dictionary couldn't sustain itself on the multitude of supplemental volumes needed to adapt to an ever-changing language, OUP took the leap to begin digitizing the dictionary in 1983 and combining the supplemental volumes. Once the "OED" went online in 2000, the editors began a process to complete a revised third edition of the dictionary, estimating its completion in 2037.
Across the pond in the United States, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," in 1806. After 20 years spent studying 26 languages, Webster released his full comprehensive English dictionary of over 70 thousand words, "An American Dictionary of the English Language."
Most notably, Webster's dictionary began the process of converting what he considered unnecessarily complex spellings into American English. Colour became color, centre became center, waggon became wagon. After Webster's death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam secured the rights to Webster's dictionary. Through a tedious process of expanding and editing, George Merriam published his revision as "Webster's International" in 1890.
The "Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary" is now in its 11th edition, with a fully accessible dictionary and thesaurus available for free online.