The First English Dictionary 1604

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "The First English Dictionary 1604", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 319-321.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

In A Table Alphabeticall Robert Cawdrey defined “theologie” as the science of living blessedly for ever. The real life of this early lexicographer was very different: born about 1737, in the later years of the reign of Henry VIII, he started as a teacher and then went into the church. There he came into conflict with the authorities and was accused of defaming the Book of Common Prayer from the pulpit. Yet as a village priest he was keen to spread the word, especially among unlearned people, and published a catechism in 1580. He had to leave the priesthood and he turned more and more to writing. This included a dictionary, first published in 1604. The period over which Cawdrey (1537?‐1604?) compiled this dictionary was one of the most inventive in the history of the English language, with writers like Shakespeare and Spenser and Sidney at work.

This fact alone would make Cawdrey's work of great interest. But it is of interest for other reasons too. He focused on what he called “hard usual English wordes”, many borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French languages. He presented these words in “a table alphabetically”, something we take for granted now after centuries of systematic lexicography, but which (from his introduction to the reader) was clearly new (or new to his intended readership) since he explains that “b” is near the beginning and “v” is near the end. The list had been gathered together “for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillfull persons”, and again he presumes to say that such readers will find his book useful but that they should ensure they learn the alphabet first! Cawdrey also states (on the title‐page) that the list was intended to help people more easily “better understand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves”.

These factors are represented in the list, which is a fascinating and illuminating lexicon of and for its time and of substantial lexicographic and linguistic interest for the period and since. The work was originally published by Edmund Weaver and sold at his shop at the great north door of “Paules Church” in 1604. This edition has been made available from the only surviving copy of the first printing of the work, which is in the Bodleian Library. Readers able to visit the library will wish to know that its shelfmark is Arch.A.f.141 (2). Before looking at the words themselves, it is useful to set the scene, not least of all the scene as set by a masterly and succinct introduction by John Simpson. He is Chief Editor for the Oxford English Dictionary (now online by subscription from Oxford University Press), was co‐editor with Edmund Weiner of the 1989 second edition OED (to which several supplements have appeared since that time), and editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (2005). Simpson provides a most helpful historical and critical context for Cawdrey's life and work, indicating the interest Cawdrey's list has had for the OED itself as well as pointing towards the wider historiography of lexicography (works like Schäfer and De Witt Starnes and Stein, for instance).

Understandably, readers interested in buying this dictionary will want to know (and perhaps already know) of Cawdrey's place in the historical sequence of “dictionaries” (although they were called by many names at the time, a matter of no small interest in itself!). Edmund Coote's The English school‐maistre (1596) was drawn upon by Cawdrey. Simpson rightly says that Cawdrey did not invent lexicography in English: several bilingual dictionaries, word‐lists and glossaries existed before him, even as far back as Caxton himself (a French‐English vocabulary for travellers). John Florio's Italian‐English dictionary dates from 1598. What Cawdrey produced was arguably the first monolingual dictionary in English. His decision to concentrate on “hard usual words” also made it special, and, as we shall see, his definitions are themselves often distinctive. Blount's Glossographia (1656) was larger and cited sources and etymologies (Cawdrey did not do that), and, with time, we move into the eighteenth century with Bailey's dictionary (1721) and then Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1955 (with over 40,000 entries and illustrative quotations, a model to be followed later by the OED itself).

This Bodleian Library version is neat and elegant, reproducing the title page of the original as is frontispiece, and devoting most of its space to a simple reproduction (in modern typeface) of the dictionary. Simpson has expanded abbreviations, used modern conventions of square bracketing, and indicated words from the French with the easy‐on‐the‐eye contraction “fr.”. Original spelling (‐ie endings, u/v variants and the like) are retained. To the modern eye – scholarly or lay – the entries fall into several types. Given Cawdrey's theological and didactic agenda, it comes as no surprise that religious words are numerous – hereticall, benisson, apostacie, presbitarie, propitiation, schisme, simonie, unction. Some are memorably concise and concisely memorable – “fatall” as “mortall, appointed by God to come to passe”, and “martyre” as “witnes, one suffering death for the faith of Christ”, and of course the delightful definition of “theologie” (above). Another specialist field Cawdrey is keen to include is that of astronomy (horizon, hemisphere, meridian, geomancie, climactericall, and zodiack).

Anyone interested in the history of language as well as the history of dictionaries will relish (and, despite themselves, still be surprised at) the modernity of many of the entries: inscrutable (that cannot be searched into), portable (that may be carried with ease), popular (seeking the favour of the people by all means possible), and temporise (the serve the time, or to follow the fashions, and behaviour of the time). Most of Cawdrey's words are nouns and adjectives, and, as we can see, more than a few of them were already established in 1604 in something like their modern meaning. Others, of course were not: advertise is giving knowledge and advising rather than what it is today, and plausible (eccentrically perhaps) is pleasing or received joyfully. Others like this include seminarie, sycophant, phantasie, rifle, virago, and traffique.

Then there are words that, however, understandable they are in terms of usage then and etymology then and now, have disappeared (though some resurface in later dictionaries – an interesting intertextuality for specialists): obtrectation and malepert, circumligate and perfricated, querimonious and oppilation, temerarious and peccant. As commentators on language like Bill Bryson have suggested, some of these earlier words, and some of their earlier meanings, would be really useful – or at least colourful – today, and four such candidates are these: overplus (“more than needeth”), reachlesse (“carelesse or negligent”), gnible (“bite”), and misknow (“to mistake purposely, to be ignorant of”). The last is particularly useful in for a generation of readers familiar with postmodern irony!

Cawdrey's work was inevitably superseded by others, notably John Bullokar's English Expositor of 1616 which set out to teach “the interpretation of the hardest words used in our language”. In trying to fix to tide of language, probably all dictionaries and glossaries suffer such a fate. However, this does not detract from the fact that Cawdrey's dictionary really is a remarkable work from many points of view, that it is a watershed in English lexicography, and that the date of its publication gives it special resonance for any student of the Renaissance period. For any library seriously collecting works that shed such light on language and the urge to record and define it, this is a particularly interesting addition to consider buying and it is a very attractive edition of the work.

Further reading

Ayto, J. and Simpson, J. (2005), The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bryson, B. (2002), Troublesome Words, Penguin Books, revised ed., London.

OED online, available at:, access by subscription.

Starnes, D.W. and Gertrude, E.N. (1991), The English Dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson, 1604‐1755, new ed., John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam.

Stein, G. (1985), The English Dictionary before Cawdrey, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tűbingen.

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