Regulating English:

the Early Modern Monolingual English Dictionary


The material here has been drawn entirely from


Osselton, N.E. “The Character of the Earliest English dictionaries.” Chosen words: past and present problems

for dictionary makers. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995.

[Essay first published in 1990. This is a collection of reprinted essays. A few points here also come from some of the other essays. In general, assume that there should be quotation marks around all the text here.]


Further resources and reference


Lancashire, Ian. LEME online.

[A database of Early Modern lexicons and information about them. Invaluable: you can search for words that appear in the definitions too!]

Starnes, De Witt T. and Gertrude E. Noyes. The English dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson 1604-1755.

1946. New ed. and intro. by Gabriele Stein. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1991.


For your next essay

§       if you like collecting and organizing and focussing things

§       and if you are interested in issues of ‘authority’

o      a dictionary project might be for you!

§       think of a very focussed semantic field

§       and use its treatment in these dictionaries (LEME, EEBO, ECCO) to illustrate the distinctive features of the dictionaries


o      Cawdrey 1604 the first monolingual dictionary of English

o      but there’s a C16th manuscript (“the Rawlinson dictionary”) that would probably have predated him if published

o      has 337 entries for ‘A’, vs Cawdrey’s 286

§       moreover, Cawdrey’s dictionary is ‘A-heavy’

o      used an English-Latin dictionary as a source and has more ‘common’ words

§       e.g. age, ague

§       and some phrasal verbs (from Lat. re- )

·       put back, keep back, give back, goe back


Terms for the genre

§       Cawdrey 1604: A table alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French &c.

§       Bullokar 1616: An English expositor: teaching the interpretation of the hardest words vsed in our language

§       Cockeram 1623: The English dictionarie: or, an interpreter of hard English words ... Being a collection of some thousands of words, never published by any heretofore

§       Blount 1656: Glossographia: or a dictionary, interpreting all such hard words ... as are now used in our refined English tongue

§       Coles 1676: An English dictionary explaining the difficult terms that are used in divinity, husbandry, physick, phylosophy, law, navigation, mathematicks, and other arts and sciences containing many thousands of hard words (and proper names of places) more than are in any other English dictionary or expositor : together with the etymological derivation of them from their proper fountains, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, or any other language, in a method more comprehensive, than any that is extant

Title pages serve as a blurb

§       highlight features

o      kinds of words, e.g. “hard words” (but “usual”, “used” – a practical book!)

o      etymologies: “Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French...” (in order of obscurity?)

o      number of words: Bailey 1721 contains “many Thousand Words more than either Harris, Philips, Kersey, or any English Dictionary before Extant”


§       identify author

o      anonymous (Cawdrey)

§       Rutland grammar school master

o      initials: E.P. 1658, J.K. 1702

§       Phillips left university without a degree, hack writer

§       J.K. perhaps John Kersey, known to have revised Phillips in 1706

o      professional

§       “I.B., Doctor of Physicke” (Bullokar)

§       “T.B. of the Inner Temple, Barrester (Blount)

o      [philologus in Grk letters], N. Bailey

§       teacher and textbook writer

o      university graduate: Samuel Johnson, A.M.


§       identify audience:

o      e.g. women, students, merchants, “the linguistically insecure, baffled by the highly heterogeneous vocabulary of their native language

§       e.g. Cawdrey 1604: “for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilful persons”

§       J.K. 1702: “for the benefit of Young Scholars, Tradesmen, Artificers, and the Female Sex, who would learn to spell truely”

·       “The need to cater for this humbler public continues through into the eighteenth century”

o      e.g. upper ranks of society (or those who’d like to think of themselves as there)

§       Johnson’s dictionary, based on and illustrated with literary quotations


Alphabetization used

§       needed explanation in Cawdrey (lifted from one of his sources, Coote’s 1596 English schoole-maister)

o      “If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand, and to profit by this Table ... then thou must learne the Alphabet ... Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table ... if thy word beginne with (ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of that letter.”


§       not perfect (Cawdrey 12% wrong, successors average 6-8%))

o      random error

o      printer intervention, e.g. substitutes impacience for impatience without adjusting the alphabetical sequence

o      problem of what to do with derived forms

§       as separate entries

·       e.g. Cawdrey puts assigne, appoint, ordaine, before assignation

·       captiue before captiuate

§       bracketed

·       vnitie,  } peace, or

·       vnion¸  } concord

o      problem of what to do with variants (orth. or morph.)

§       e.g. in Cawdrey, {ingine, engine} appear only under ‘I’

§       ‘or’ (Phillips 1658)

·       Indocility¸or Indocibility


§       I/J and U/V conflated in this period

o      e.g. Johnson: juxtaposition precedes ivy



§       new scholarly (especially) Latinate vocabulary

§       technical terms: e.g. Bailey “Terms of Art relating to Anatomy, Botany, Physick, Pharmacy, Surgery ... Confectionary, Carving, Cookery, &c.”

§       slang/cant

o      Coles 1676: “save your Throat from being cut, or, at least, your Pocket from being pick’d”, e.g. “Doxy, C. a wench”

§       dialect (unsystematic: “habit”? “sentiment”? contempt?)

o      Ray 1674: Collection of English Words not generally used

o      Coles 1676: 3.25% of his vocabulary, e.g. “Crawly-mawly, Nf. pretty well.”

o      Johnson 1755: “kirk an old word for a church, yet retained in Scotland.” (both obsolete and Scottish!)

§       archaisms (helping reader of early as well as current literature?)

o      e.g. Bullokar and Cockeram have clepe as a headword

§       encyclopedic matter

o      e.g. Phillips had “names of classical, historical or biblical interest” for “readers of poetry and polite letters”

o      Coles 1676 had “personal names and the names of English towns”

§       ordinary words

o      Kersey 1702 first to include systematically and to state his reasons for it

§       the assistance it will give to ‘young Scholars, Tradesmen, Artificers, and others, and particularly, the more ingenious Practitioners of the Female Sex; in attaining to the true manner of Spelling of such Words, as from time to time they have occasionally to make use of”: e.g. “above”, “clammy”, “fleece”, “in”, “large”, “unwise”

o      phrasal verbs given first reasonably full coverage by Johnson



§       occasionally indicated with a letter, e.g. (g) Greek

o      (g) marks some entry-words of Greek origin (Cawdrey)

o      extended to other languages by Coles 1676

§       root word

o      Blount 1656 sometimes gives the root word, e.g. Tithing [Sax. Teothung]

o      Blount the first to make an effort to give etymologies

§       first explicitly etymological dictionary 1689: Gazophylacium Anglicanum 1689

§       first systematic statement in a general dictionary of immediate source and remoter analogues (Bailey 1721)

CLERGY (F. ... L.  ... Gr)


Size (number of entries)


Different sources give quite different numbers (and many of these works ran into multiple editions with additions). I’ve taken most of these figures from one website.


Cawdrey 1604

ca 2500

Bullokar 1616

ca 5000

Blount 1656

ca 11,000?

J.K. 1702

ca 28,000

Bailey 1721

ca 40,000

Johnson 1755

ca 40,000



Hard-word dictionaries

§       Latin-English dictionaries

§       subject-specific glossaries appended to learned vernacular publications

§       and specialist dictionaries, glossaries, etc.

§       writers:

o      difficult/scientific: Bacon, Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Blount 1656)

§       “covers an immense range of topics ... about which popular beliefs might be set right by the application of the new scientific knowledge”

o      literary: Johnson

More ‘ordinary’ words

§       vernacular textbooks, e.g. spelling books

§       bilingual dictionaries: English-Latin and perhaps English-French

o      Kersey 1702, for the more ‘common’ words

o      Johnson 1755: for phrasal verbs, e.g. call back, for, in, on, out, over, upon

§       literary authors

o      SJ then found literary quotations containing many of them


Acknowledgement of sources

§       “plagiarism was clearly the norm”

§       but “there are early instances of honest acknowledgment”

o      Blount lists about 10

o      Bailey and Johnson acknowledge source of etymologies

§       non-dictionary sources acknowledged,

o      e.g. Lord Bacon and Sir Thomas Browne

§       Blount 1656 the first

o      e.g. Chaucer



§       criticize predecessors

§       before Martin (1749) and Johnson (1755), less practical guidance on contents and use

§       Johnson’s

o      introduction to a dictionary

o      exposition of lexicographical theory and practice

§       much less optimistic than the Plan about ‘fixing’ language!

o      had a grammar (had been found in monolingual dictionaries from Dyche and Pardon 1735 onwards)

o      and a history of the language (not unknown)


Typographical strategies

§       contrast of fonts

o      Black letter + Roman (Cawdrey, Blount, Kersey-Phillips)

§       edifice, building  (Cawdrey)

§       ebriety (ebrietas) drunkenness (Blount)

o      italic + Roman (Phillips, Coles)

§       Edacity, (lat.) a greedy eating, or devouring (Phillips)

o      CAPITALS + Roman (Bailey, Martin)

§       ECHINATE Seeds [of Plants] are such as are prickly or rough.

o      large and small capitals to distinguish between main and derivative entry-word (Johnson)


§       obelisk or dagger for words of doubtful acceptability

§       ITALIC CAPITALS for unassimilated foreign loanwords (Martin)



§       the need to distinguish specialized technical senses was often satisfied incidentally within the definition

o      Operation (Lat) a labouring or working. ‘Tis frequently used in Chymistry and Surgery, and signifies ...’ (GAN 1707)

§       bracketed notes (in hunting)

§       letters (‘c’ for ‘canting’, ‘o’ for ‘old word’, ‘Ch[eshire]’, ‘E[ssex]’, etc.

§       Kersey major innovator of abbreviated labels

o      prefaced a list of 46 to his 1708 dictionary, e.g.

§       ‘Sc.’ for Scotch

§       S.L. = Statute-Law

§       S.T. for ‘Sea Term’

§       subjective commentary

o      e.g. ‘a barbarous term in husbandry’



§       earliest used synonyms, often pairing a learned foreign term with a native one

o      ignify ‘to burn’

§       aimed at (though they often fell short of) logical or insertible equivalents

o      quotidian done daily, that happens every day, ordinary (Blount 1656)

§       interconnected (unique to Coles 1676)

o      Evade, l. to make an

Evasion, an escape, shift.

§       “discourse approach”

o      Becalm’d, is when the Water is so very smooth, that the Ship has scarce any Motion, or moves but slowly” (Glossographia Anglicana Nova 1707)

§       numbered definitions presented in a predetermined order (Martin 1749)

o      chronologically so as to illustrate the semantic development of the word (Johnson 1755)


Illustrative quotations

§       Johnson the first to derive definitions from and illustrate them with quotations fro major writers of the preceding two centuries

o      Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Addison, Pope, Bacon account for almost half the quotations



§       word class:

o      Dyche and Pardon (1735) initiated the modern convention of including a note of word class (v for verb, a for adjective, etc.) for every entry

§       morphology little treated before 18th century

o      J.K. 1702 seems to be the first to enter noun plurals (mice) and verb forms (rang)



§       little before the 18th century

o      Coles prefixed the usual list of homophones e.g. ware wear were

§       word stress

o      Bailey the first to

§       added guidance on syllabification

o      Dyche and Pardon 1735; Martin

§       little by Johnson

o      not yet an effective method for representing it