Martin Ansdell-Smith

A Short History of the English dictionary

English Dictionaries

Brief history

Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language has 43,500 headwords. Planning began in 1747 and production took six years. The dictionary has 118,000 supporting quotations to illustrate how the words were used over history, but quotes only from books published after the death of Sir Philip Sidney (1586)
Noah Webster's American Dictionary has 70,000 headwords and took 15 years to produce.
Richardson produced a dictionary that lacked definitions but had illustrative quotations.
Guest established the Philological Society.
Mid-year, the Philological Society established an unregistered word committee to identify words not in current dictionaries. In November, Trench presented paper on some deficiencies in English dictionaries to the Philological Society. He proposed a dictionary of all English words from all published English works to be called the New English Dictionary (NED).
NED project begun.
On 12 May the NED plan was published. NED was also called the Philological Society Dictionary (PSD) Herbert Coleridge was the first editor of the PSD/NED. Periods of books to be read:
  • 1250–1526, publication of the first New Testament in English
  • 1526–1674, death of Milton
  • 1674–1858, formal start of project
Frederick James Furnivall was the second editor of the PSD/NED.
James Murray was the third editor of the PSD/NED.
Oxford English Dictionary, first edition, published with 12 volumes, 414,825 headwords and 1,827,306 citations.

Most modern dictionaries of English are based on a corpus: a collection of extracts or complete works that meet the collators' or editors' criteria. These will often have millions of words and perhaps include oral as well as written and edited works.

English Corpus sources

Google ngram viewer shows the usage of words and phrases over time.

English dictionaries I use

Links to the dictionaries I use, including some subscription services.

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