Glossographia—a very special dictionary
When is a dictionary not a dictionary?
3 November 2015
A question came through the Ask a Librarian service—"I found The Glossographia in your catalogue. I would like to see the original 1656 version. Can I see it online?"
Glossographia? This is not a word you can look up in a dictionary; rather it is the title of a lexicon or dictionary of unusual words put together by one Thomas Blount, published in 1656.
Glossographia; or, a dictionary interpreting the hard words of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue – Thomas Blount 1656
Curiosity got the better of me and I ordered the three books to the reading room. Surprisingly, the original is not a large book; 11.5cm wide by 17.5cm high and 4.5cm thick. It must have been a splendid book once; there are a few leather remnants, but its edges were painted and it had endbands at the head and tail, now sadly missing. Perhaps its leather cover was recycled onto another book.
According to the British Library, Richard Mulcaster’s guide to learning, Elementarie, published in 1582, contained 8,000 words of the English language, making it the first collection of English words. Because they had no definition, this cannot be termed a dictionary, but it helped to make English more accessible to the growing reading population.
Robert Cawdrey’s Alphabeticall published in 1604 was the first full English dictionary, with definitions for about 3,000 words. We have its fascimile in our collection.
In 1656, Thomas Blount published a dictionary of unusual words that contained the definitions of over 11,000 words.
I open a random page—concamerate: to vault or arch as an oven is.
In this book, Blount explains the meanings of words used in professions, explaining jargon to the layman. And now that books are printed in the vernacular, novels foreign and English are read by a wide audience, and Blount explains the meanings of popular foreign words used in translations and novels.
As a librarian I still see the occasional patron searching the print dictionaries along the reference shelf, but Googling now seems a much easier way of finding meaning. Back in the seventeenth century however, as more people took to reading, and books were imported and translated, language would have exploded. It must have been such a feat to collect thousands of words and their definitions.
I wrote back to our patron to let him know that an online version was indeed available to registered users of the Library, accessible through our eResources portal.
If you would like to check out those hard to understand words, The Glossographia is available for perusal in the Special Collections Reading Room if you have a Library card. See our Getting Started guide to find out how.