History,  Language


The first monolingual English-language dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, was published in 1604. Before this date, dictionaries that defined English words were focused on translating words between English and other languages, particularly French, Italian, and Latin. But Cawdrey’s Table offered something new – when first published, it contained just over 2,500 “hard” English words with brief definitions that used only “plaine English words” to describe their meanings in an easily accessible way. Cawdrey took part in a tradition that characterized lexicography before and after him – borrowing heavily from the work of predecessors, including a number of earlier vocabulary lists and foreign-language dictionaries. From the beginning, monolingual English-language dictionaries thus represented a passing down of conceptual knowledge across generations, with lexicographers continuously referring to past works as foundations for building their own definitions. Following the publication of Cawdrey’s Table, the seventeenth century saw a lexicographical blossoming, and monolingual English dictionaries became increasingly popular, culturally important, and extensive in scope. These dictionaries continued for a time the hard-word focus that Cawdrey had employed, and lexicographers repeatedly borrowed from past works, while increasingly expanding the number of words included and the scope of their definitions.

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