The Age of the Dictionary – The History of English (7/10)


The History of English in Ten Minutes.
Chapter 7: The Age of the Dictionary, or the definition of a hopeless task. With
English expanding in all directions, along came a new breed of men called
lexicographers, who wanted to put an end to this anarchy, a word they defined as
‘what happens when people spell words slightly differently from each other’. One
of the greatest was Dr. Johnson whose Dictionary of the English language took
him nine years to write. It was 18 inches tall and contained 42,773 entries, meaning that even if you couldn’t read,
it was still pretty useful if he wanted to reach a high shelf. For the first time, when people were calling you a pickleherring, a jobbernowl or a fopdoodle,
you could understand exactly what they meant and you’d have the consolation of
knowing they were all using the standard spelling. Try as he might to stop them,
words kept being invented and in 1857 a new book was started that would become
the Oxford English Dictionary. It took another 70 years to be finished off. The
first editor resigned to be an archbishop, the second died of TB and the
third was so boring that half his volunteers quit and one of them ended up
in an asylum. It eventually appeared in 1928 and it’s continued to be revised ever
since, proving the whole idea that you can stop people making up words is
complete snuffbumble.

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