Hard Wordes in Plaine English

The first English dictionary was published long before Samuel Johnson. Scott McLemee consults the first reprint in 400 years.

April 4, 2007

Longtime readers of Intellectual Affairs may recall that this column occasionally indulges in reference-book nerdery. So it was a pleasant but appropriate surprise when the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford  provided a copy of its new edition of the very first dictionary of the English language. It has been out of print for almost 400 years, and the Bodleian is now home to the one known copy of it to have survived.

Available now as The First English Dictionary, 1604 (distributed by the University of Chicago Press), the work was originally published under the title A Table Alphabeticall. It was compiled in the late 16th century by one Robert Cawdrey. The book did not bring him fame or fortune, but it went through at least two revised editions within a decade. That suggests there must have been a market for Cawdrey’s guide to what the title page called the “hard usuall English wordes” that readers sometimes encountered “in Scripture, Sermons, or elswhere.”

Cawdrey had the misfortune, unlike fellow lexicographer Samuel Johnson, of never meeting his Boswell. Yet he had an eventful career – enough to allow for a small field of Cawdrey studies. An interesting introduction by John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, sums up what is known about Cawdrey and suggests ways in which his dictionary may contain echoes of his life and times.

At the risk of being overly present-minded, there’s a sense in which Cawdrey was a pioneer in dealing with the effects of his era’s information explosion. Thanks to the printing press, the English language was undergoing a kind of mutation in the 16th century.

New words began to circulate in the uncharted zone between common usage and the cosmopolitan lingo of sophisticated urbanites who traveled widely. Learned gentlemen were  traveling to France and Italy and coming back “to powder their talk with over-sea language,” as Cawdrey noted. Some kinds of “academicke” language (glossed by Cawdrey as “of the sect of wise and learned men”) were gaining wider usage. And readers were encountering words like “crocodile” and “akekorn” which were unfamiliar. Cawdrey’s terse definitions of them as “beast” and “fruit,” respectively, suggest he probably had seen neither.

Booksellers had offered lexicons of ancient and foreign languages. And there were handbooks explaining the meaning of specialized jargon, such as that used by lawyers. But it was Cawdrey’s bright idea that you might need to be able to translate new-fangled English into a more familiar set of “plaine English words.”

Cawdrey also found himself in the position of needing to explain his operating system. “To profit by this Table,” as he informed the “gentle Reader” in a note, “thou must learn the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand....and where every Letter standeth.” Furthermore, you really needed to have it down cold. A word beginning with the letters “ca,” he noted, would appear earlier than one starting with “cu.” After using the “Table” for a while, you probably got the hang of it.

Who was this orderly innovator? Cawdrey, born in the middle of England sometime in the final years of Henry VIII, seems not to have attended Oxford or Cambridge. But he was learned enough to teach and to preach, and came to enjoy the patronage of a minister to Queen Elizabeth. He married, and raised a brood of eight children. In a preface to the dictionary, Cawdrey acknowledges the assistance of “my sonne Thomas, who now is Schoolmaister in London.”

Cawdrey published volumes on religious instruction and on the proper way to run a household so that each person knew his or her proper place. He also compiled “A Treasurie or store-house of similies both pleasant, delightfull, and profitable, for all estates of men in generall.” (Such verbosity was quite typical of book titles at the time. The full title page for his dictionary runs to about two paragraphs.)

Whatever his chances for mobility and modest renown within the Elizabethan intelligentsia were severely limited, however, given his strong religious convictions. For Cawdrey was a Puritan – that is, someone convinced that too many of the old Roman Catholic ways still clung to the Church of England.

Curious whether "Puritan" (a neologism with controversial overtones) appeared in dictionary, I looked it up. It isn’t there. But Cawrey does have “purifie,” meaning “purge, scoure, or make cleane” -- which is soon followed by “putrifie, to waxe rotten, or corrupted as a sore.” By the 1580s, Cawdrey had both words very much in mind when he spoke from the pulpit. When he was called before church authorities, one of the complaints was that he had given a sermon in which he had “depraved the Book of Common Prayer, saying, That the same was a Vile Book and Fy upon it.” He was stripped of his position as minister.

But Cawdrey did not give up without a fight. He appealed the sentence, making almost two dozen trips to London to argue that it was invalid under church law. All to no avail. He ignored hints from well-placed friends that he might get his job back by at least seeming to go along with the authorities on some  points. For that matter, he continued to sign his letters as if he were the legitimate pastor of his town.

No doubt Cawdrey retained a following within the Puritan underground, but he presumably had to go back to teaching to earn a living. Details about his final years are few. It isn’t even clear when Cawdrey died. He would have been approaching 70 when his dictionary appeared, and references in reprints of his books a few years later imply that they were revised posthumously.

In his introductory essay, John Simpson points out that the OED now lists 60,000 words that are known to have been in use in English around the year 1600. Cawdrey defines about 2,500 of them. “We should probably assume that he was unable to include as many words as he would have liked,” writes Simpson, “in order to keep his book within bounds. It was, after all, an exploratory venture.”

But that makes the selection all the more interesting. It gives you a notion of what counted as a “hard word” at the time. Most of them are familiar now from ordinary usage, though not always in quite the sense that Cawdrey indicates. He gives the meaning of “decision” as “cutting away,” for example. Tones of the preacher can be heard in his slightly puzzling definition of “curiositie” as “picked diligence, greater carefulnes, then is seemly or necessarie.”

Given his Puritan leanings, it is interesting to see that the word “libertine” has no specifically erotic overtones for Cawdrey. He defines the word applying to those “loose in religion, one that thinks he may doe as he listeth.” One of the longest entries is for “incest,” explained as “unlawfull copulation of man and woman within the degrees of kinred, or alliance, forbidden by Gods law, whether it be in marriage or otherwise.”

It is a commonplace of much recent scholarship that, prior to the mania for categorizing varieties of sexual desire that emerged in the 19th century, the word “sodomy” covered a wide range of non-procreative acts, heterosexual as well as homosexual. Cawdrey, it seems, didn’t get the memo. He defines “sodomitrie” as “when one man lyeth filthylie with another man.” Conversely, and rather more puzzling, is his definition of “buggerie” (which one might assume to be a slang term for a rather specific act) as “conjunction with one of the same kinde, or of men with beasts.”

In a few entries, one detects references to Cawdrey’s drawn-out legal struggle of the 1580s and '90s. He explains that a "rejoinder" is “a thing added afterwards, or is when the defendant maketh answere to the replication of the plaintife.” So a rejoinder is a response, perhaps, to “sophistikation” which Cawdrey defines as “a cavilling, deceitful speech.”

Especially pointed and poignant is the entry for “temporise,” meaning “to serve the time, or to follow the fashions and behaviour of the time.” Say what you will about Puritan crankiness, but Robert Cawdrey did not “temporise.”

Particularly interesting to note are entries hinting at how the “new information infrastructure” (circa 1600) was affecting language. The expense of producing and distributing literature was going down. “Literature,” by the way, is defined by Cawdrey here as “learning.” Cawdrey includes a bit of scholarly jargon, “abstract,” which he explains means “drawne away from another: a litbooke or volume prepared out of a greater.”

Some of the words starting to drift into the ken of ordinary readers were derived from Greek, such as “democracie, a common-wealth gouerned by the people” and “monopolie, a license that none shall buy and sell a thing, but one alone.” Likewise with terms from the learned art of rhetoric such as “metaphor,” defined as "similitude, or the putting over of a word from his proper and naturall signification, to a forraine or unproper signification.”

Cawdrey’s opening address “To the Reader” is a manifesto for the Puritan plain style. Anyone seeking “to speak publiquely before the ignorant people,” he insists, should “bee admonished that they never affect any strange inkhorne termes, but labour to speake so as is commonly received, and so as the most ignorant may well understand them.”

At the same time, some of the fancier words were catching on. The purpose of the dictionary was to fill in the gap between language that “Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons” might encounter in their reading and what they could readily understand. (At this point, one would certainly like to know whether Cawdrey taught his own three daughters how to read.) Apart from its importance to the history of lexicography, this pioneering reference work remains interesting as an early effort to strike a balance between innovation and accessibility in language use.

“Some men seek so far for outlandish English,” the old Puritan divine complains, “that they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell, or understand what they say.” Oh Robert Cawdrey, that thou shouldst be alive at this hour!


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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