The pen may be mightier than the sword, but what about a dictionary?
As the Reformation and the Enlightenment (1500s) took hold in Europe, the English language began to transform from a resistance fighter, able to absorb and overcome its conquerors, to be the conqueror itself. The Normans (who conquered England in 1066) tried to make French the main language of England, but only succeeded in having a large number of French words transliterated into English words (For example: bucket, music, plague, marriage, beef).
Over the next 200-years, the people of England became increasingly confident and proud of their language as it performed well on the world stage. The Tyndale Bible, the works of Shakespeare and the writings of people like John Locke and Isaac Newton clearly demonstrated that the English language was well equipped.
In this period it became fashionable for the English to find new words to make their own. English had become a ravenous beast constantly on the look-out for a tasty word to devour. Some began to feel that the beast needed to be tamed. Consequently, attempts to standardize and preserve English – by centralized regulation - began amongst the wealthy, educated ruling classes of English society. They wanted to prevent the language from morphing into something unrecognizable by laying down the law and teaching it some manners.
This was the beginning of the Grammar Wars and a snobbery that wanted to dictate what was to be correct spoken and written English. In the process, language became an instrument of class distinction - aptly illustrated by the play “Pygmalion.” Initially, the battle remained among the educated elite. But when literacy became more universal, the battleground moved into the schools.
Dr Samuel Johnson, a wealthy, scholarly eccentric, was a pioneer in the battle to rescue English - both from the masses and its own undisciplined ways - by formalizing its spelling and pronunciation in a dictionary. After seven years, he published a dictionary of forty-three thousand words (1755), one of the first English dictionaries. His stated aim was to “make a dictionary that would fix the pronunciation of English, preserve its purity, increase its accessibility and usefulness, and prolong the duration of its survival.”
Johnson knew his task was difficult, eventually admitting, “sounds are too volatile and subtle for legal restraints.”
But, Dr Samuel Johnson’s mighty achievement is best remembered for its idiosyncrasies.
the OBSCURE (Cough: a convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity);
the PREJUDICED (Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.);
the INACCURATE (Tarantula: an insect whose bite is only cured by musick);
the SELF-DEPRECIATING (Dull: not exhilarating, not delightful: as to make dictionaries is dull work);
the IGNORANT (Etch: a country word which I know not the meaning);
and the ARCHAIC (digladation and incompossibility).
While the educated establishment partially succeeded in taming the English language through the printed word, spoken English has continued to adapt and expand, becoming a dominant player in the world of languages. The role of dictionaries in the development of English has increasingly shifted from their original purpose - to preserve and standardize - to become a running record of the language's capacity to adapt and grow. English continues to feast on the world’s languages while the dictionaries try to keep up. Johnson’s 43,000 word dictionary would be considered small today.
The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003.