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Time Pieces History Project Item Six – The Dictionary

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the dictionary.

The Dictionary – Introduction to Item Six

The Oxford Modern English DictionaryIt probably won’t come as a surprise that I’ve chosen the dictionary as one of my significant personal objects, although it’s less to do with the book itself and more what it represents to me. At school I was referred to as the ‘walking dictionary’, which isn’t something I’m quite so keen to remember!

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the best writers are also avid readers, and I have been obsessed with books since I was tiny. I carried piles of them with me whenever we went on a car trip, in case I ran out, and I spent the first 10 years of my life with my nose in a book.

On one memorable occasion, I was so engrossed that I didn’t listen properly to my dad when he asked me to do him a favour, and managed to flood the bathroom (when he said “turn the water on” he meant the immersion heater, not the taps…)

I don’t often use a dictionary, but I like to have one to hand for when I come across a new word. I collect any that are unusual, and if you follow me on Twitter you may have seen these shared as a “Word of the Week.” I love words, and I’m endlessly fascinated by what they mean, what they represent and how they came about.

The History of the Dictionary

The nice thing about a dictionary is that it constantly evolves with the world around it. New words are added all the time, and definitions are amended as language usage shifts. While you’re not going to read it cover to cover, you can learn plenty about what contemporary society was focused on when each dictionary edition was published.

As most people know, Samuel Johnson spent nine years writing the first version of what we now consider to be a dictionary, finally presenting “A Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755 over two volumes. Charmingly, the entirety of the original dictionary has been uploaded to the internet.

He was persuaded to compile this by London booksellers dissatisfied with what was already available at the time, and paid the handsome sum of 1,500 guineas (£1,575, or about £240,000 in today’s money).Samuel Johnson, author of the modern dictionary

Johnson’s version was widely used for next 100 years, before the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED) replaced it. Work on the OED was begun in 1857, when The Philological Society of London, like the booksellers before them, decided that the dictionaries available weren’t up to standard.

However, it took them even longer than Johnson, with the work only getting underway in 1879. The dictionary was finally published in ‘fascicles’ – separate parts – between 1884 and 1928. The team included Early Middle, Middle and Modern English terms in their ‘A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles’, which contained 400,000 words.

The Thesaurus

If a dictionary is a handy tool, for anyone who writes a lot, a thesaurus is even more useful. Merriam-Webster ePeter Roget, compiler of the thesaurusxplains that the thesaurus offers over ‘275,000 synonyms, antonyms, related words, and idiomatic phrases, with concise definitions.’

The first modern thesaurus was compiled in 1805 by Peter Mark Roget, and Roget’s Thesaurus hasn’t been out of print since then. The entries aren’t listed alphabetically, but conceptually. The first version, however, was put together by Philo of Byblos in antiquity, followed by 4th century verse-form thesaurus called the Amarakosha written in Sanskrit.

 The Printing Press

Of course, Johnson’s dictionary was possible thanks to the printing press, which made mass reproductions and dissemination of a manuscript possible. German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the first one in the 15th century, but printing was something that had been done for a lot longer.

Yep, the Chinese (along with inventing tea and the fan) were using wooden blocks, coated with ink and pressed against paper, to create documents using the ‘block printing’ technique.

According to Live Science, the earliest surviving block printed book was produced in 868, before being sealed in a cave outside of the city Dunhuang. The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text, was rediscovered in 1900, and is safely stored at the British Library.The Gutenberg printing press, used for dictionary printing

In the 11th century, moveable type was invented by Pi Sheng, a Chinese peasant. Each of the characters was made from baked clay, and a mixture of wax, pine resin, and ash was used for the ink. From there, a government official by the name of Wang Chen made his own moveable type in the 14th century out of wood, which paved the way for Gutenberg’s invention a hundred years or so later.


Etymology is the history and origin of a word, how it develops and spreads from one language to another. The history of a place name is known as toponomy. The English language is rich with the influences of all the countries we’ve traded with, (and yes, conquered), meaning that our words are international.

Toponomy is of particular interest to me, possibly because I spend a lot of time on motorways! I love spotting unusual place names, and trying to work out the derivation (yes, really!) before looking them up. Many are old Anglo-Saxon words, such as the suffix ‘ham’ for village and ‘lee/ley’ for forest clearing.

The suffixes ‘caster’, ‘chester’ and ‘cester’ indicate the former location or a Roman ‘castrum’ – a fort or military camp. However, it can also refer to a pre-historic fort. My favourite is Dublin, which actually means Blackpool (black pool)! The Poddle Stream met the River Liffey at Dublin Castle to form a deep pool, or in the Gaelic ‘dubh linn.’


Books Tell you Why: The History of Dictionaries
Oxford English Dictionary: History
Merriam-Webster: Thesaurus


  1. Anton Lauret on August 6, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Wonderful thing the dictionary – I share Gudrun’s fascination with the things although I’m increasingly mocked when I’m caught leafing through one ‘Why don’t you just look it up on line !?’ Oh,no Not the same not the same at all !

    • on August 6, 2019 at 4:45 pm

      You’re less likely to have your eye caught by another interesting word if you look things up online.

      • Ian Sharp on August 6, 2019 at 8:55 pm

        My favourite local place name in County Durham is Pity Me.
        From the French Petite Mere (small pool).
        The down side to the dictionary is that you need to know how to spell something before you look it up.
        As in Newmonia or diareah.
        With google you can speak those words and get the correct spellings.
        Just saying.

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