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Peep into the Fabulous World of Dictionaries

Peep into the Fabulous World of Dictionaries

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Peep into the Fabulous World of Dictionaries

Lexicography is an important branch of linguistics, which covers the theory and practice of compiling dictionaries. The history of lexicography of the English language goes as far back as the Old English period where its first traces are found in the form of the glosses of religious books with interlinear translation from Latin. Regular bilingual English-Latin dictionaries already existed in the 15th century.

The first unilingual English dictionary, explaining words appeared in 1604. Its aim was to explain difficult words. Its title was “A Table Alphabetical, containing and teaching true writing and understanding of hard usual English words borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin or French”. The volume of 120 pages explaining about 3000 words was compiled by Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster.

The first attempt at a bigger dictionary including all the words of the language, not only the difficult ones, was made by Nathaniel Bailey. He published the first edition of Universal Etymological English Dictionary in 1721. It was the first to include pronunciation and etymology.

The first big explanatory dictionary “A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their general significations by examples from the best writers” was compiled by Dr. Samuel Johnson and published in 1755. The most important innovation of this dictionary was the introduction of illustrations of the meanings of the words by examples from the best writers. Pronunciation was not marked, because Samuel Johnson was very much sure of the great variety of the English pronunciation and thought it impossible to set a standard there. He remained an unquestionable authority for more than 75 years.

The Golden Age of lexicography started in the last quarter of the 19 century when the English Philological Society started to work on compiling The Oxford English Dictionary. The objective was to trace the development of the English words from their original form in Old English. Where they were not found in Old English, it was shown when they introduced into the language. For words and meanings which have already become obsolete the date of the latest occurrence is provided. The English of G. Chaucer, of the Bible and W. Shakespeare is given as much attention as that of the modern authors. The completion of the work required more than 75 years. The result is a kind of encyclopedia of the language used not only for reference but also as a basis for lexicological research.

Curiously enough, the first American dictionary of the English language was compiled by a man whose name was also Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson, a Connecticut schoolmaster, published in 1798 a small book entitled “A school dictionary.” This book was followed in 1800 by another dictionary by the same author, which showed already some signs of Americanization.

It was Noah Webster, universally considered to be the father of American lexicography, who embodied in his book the specifically American usage of his time. His great work, The American Dictionary of the English Language, appeared in two volumes in 1828 and later sustained numerous revisions. In many respect N. Webster follows the lead of S. Johnson, the British lexicographer. But he has also improved and corrected many of Johnson’s definitions. He attempted to simplify the spelling and pronunciation that were current in the USA of the period. He devoted many years to the collection of words and the preparation of the accurate definitions.

Webster realized the importance of language for the development of a nation, and he devoted his energy to giving the American English the status of an independent language, distinct from British English. At that time the idea was progressive as it helped the unification of separate states into one nation.

Webster’s dictionary enjoyed great popularity from its first editions. This popularity was due to not only the accuracy and clarity of definitions but also to the richness of additional information of encyclopedic character, which had become a tradition in American lexicography.

Soon after Webster’s death two publishers and booksellers George and Charles Merriam, acquired the rights of his dictionary from his family and started the publication of revised single volume editions under the name Merriam-Webster.

Boss’ Window
Latin Single
Image by Diego3336
One of many windows of "Castelinho", the residence of the Chief Engineer of the Sao Paulo Railway.

Rumor has it that through these windows, the boss had total control about everything in the village, including firing single male employees that approached a female workers’ house.

The old Victorian style house is now a museum, where old railway line maps and photographs are displayed. The museum also features the elegant furnishings of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and provides views of its surroundings.

About the Village: In the mid-19th century, the São Paulo Railway Company, a privately owned British railway company, laid a snaking network of tracks over Brazil’s green mountains. In order to transport coffee beans from inland plantations to the port of Santos on the south coast, a railroad funicular was incorporated that could lift entire trains full of cargo over the undulating terrain.

A British company provided the steam engines that drove the operation and also founded a workers’ village on the highest point in the area, called Paranapiacaba, meaning “a place to view the sea” in Tupi-Guarani. The small houses for railway and funicular employees were constructed from wood, in a style similar to those of British mining towns.

Paranapiacaba’s civic buildings and larger homes were Victorian in design, and its train station was adorned with a clock tower in imitation of London’s Big Ben.

Source: World Monuments Fund

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