Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 1 October 2005


Chalcraft, A. (2005), "Editorial", Reference Reviews, Vol. 19 No. 7. https://doi.org/10.1108/rr.2005.09919gaa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


A few weeks ago I spent a few hours in Lichfield, Staffordshire, one of England’s lesser-known cathedral cities that rarely features in the standard tourist itineraries. Ambling round the streets of this compact city, I strolled past the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. Although time did not permit a visit, this reminded me of press coverage a few weeks previously of the 250th anniversary of Dr Johnson’s greatest achievement, and one that places him high up with the other great and good in the reference hall of fame, his Dictionary of the English Language.

Published on 15 April 1755 this was not the first attempt at an English dictionary or the first large-scale dictionary in a European language. Major French and Italian dictionaries had appeared years earlier, and Johnson had in fact been commissioned to produce an English equivalent by a group of publishers wanting to emulate the continental efforts. The French dictionary took 55 years to assemble and was overseen by the grandees of the French Academy. Johnson on the other hand, in the typical English style of “muddling through”, worked largely alone and finished in 11 years (eight more than he had optimistically originally envisaged). The two-folio work produced weighed a massive 20 lb and had 42,773 entries backed by 114,000 quotations illustrating the use of words. Subtitled In Which the Words are Deduced from Their Origins it went through five editions in Johnson’s lifetime and remained the standard dictionary until well into the nineteenth century. Only when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) appeared, built on much the same historical principles, was it displaced as the primary reference source for the English language (although in the US the language and spelling reformer Noah Webster had produced his Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828).

Johnson, was of course, a notoriously idiosyncratic and opinionated character, and many of his definitions would today be considered dangerously politically incorrect. One of the more outrageous was that for Oats, recorded as “[A] grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Despite their forthrightness, according to Henry Hitchings, in his excellent book recently published to coincide with the anniversary of the dictionary (Hitchings, 2005), 1,700 of Johnson’s definitions survive in the OED. Despite its many quirks, Johnson’s dictionary was a pioneering reference landmark and it is fitting that its 250th birthday has generated substantial press and media coverage. It is not often that reference works are so lauded. Indeed, in what must be a first in the UK for a reference work, a commemorative coin has been specially minted in celebration. Although I’ve yet to come across the special 50 pence piece, or encounter anyone else who has seen one, I’ll keep checking the change and maybe one will appear before the anniversary year is out.

Dictionaries are an incidental theme of this number of Reference Reviews. In recent issues we have covered many of the current single-volume English language dictionaries. This prompted me to ask Bob Duckett, one of our most experienced reviewers and the writer of most of the dictionary reviews, to take a general look at dictionaries and their continuing importance in the reference and information process. This Bob does in the second of our occasional Reference Reviews Viewpoint articles, “Chomps and yomps; chads and spads: which dictionary”. As Bob concludes, dictionaries, whether general or subject, are critical to clarity of thought and the development of a civilized and creative society. From Johnson’s day onwards, they have been essential to the reference and information process and remain so even in the internet age. In this issue of Reference Reviews alone, eight of the titles covered have the word “dictionary” in the title.

Of these eight works, probably the most important is the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas (RR 2005/344). This is a new six-volume edition of a Scribners (now Gale Group) title originally published in the early 1970s, and long a mainstay of many general reference collections. The new edition has over 700 substantial articles and will, where it can be afforded, replace the earlier and now increasingly dated work. Also in a second edition and from Gale is the 15-volume Encyclopedia of Religion (RR 2005/341). Replacing Eliade’s award winning first edition of 1987, this is one of the major reference publishing projects of the year, and provides a thorough updating and renewal of the original text. It is hard to envisage any library with significant interests in theology or world religions not giving this work serious consideration.

Other important multi-volume reference works we should note are Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (RR 2005/340), the second edition of the highly regarded Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English (RR 2005/362), a new edition of Newcomb’s Encyclopedia of Television (RR 2005/377), and Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (RR 2005/385). Together with a substantial number of single-volume encyclopedias, some of which are major contributions, such as the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (RR 2005/376), this issue of Reference Reviews has nearly 50 per cent of its content devoted to encyclopedias and dictionaries, still two of the mainstays of the reference function. Another pillar of the reference process is the bibliographical listing now increasingly supplemented by full text, and it would be an omission to end this column without flagging the latest effort by Readex to widen access to the American bibliographical heritage. Early American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker, 1801-1819 (RR 2005/333) not only makes available the bibliographical entries from the 22 printed volumes of the Scarecrow Press listing, but provides digitized text for 36,000 books and other publications. Continuing the landmark digitization of early American texts begun by Early American Imprints (Evans) (RR 2005/68), it is another giant step forward in providing access to older texts and would appear to offer a far more systematic approach than that likely from the ongoing Google Web Library previously discussed here (Editorial, Vol. 17 No. 3).

Anthony ChalcraftEditor Reference Reviews and College Librarian, York St John College, York, UK


Hitchings, H. (2005), Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the Word, John Murray, London