Once upon a time, people knew what they were talking about. As the English language grew and grew, and became more and more complex and nuanced, it became necessary for its many users to have a way to know what others were saying. I thought that I should take this Word Of the Week series back to where it started, in the
noun, plural dictionaries.
a book, optical disc, mobile device, or online lexical resource (such as Dictionary.com) containing a selection of the words of a language, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, derived forms, etc., expressed in either the same or another language; lexicon; glossary. Print dictionaries of various sizes, ranging from small pocket dictionaries to multivolume books, usually sort entries alphabetically, as do typical CD or DVD dictionary applications, allowing one to browse through the terms in sequence. All electronic dictionaries, whether online or installed on a device, can provide immediate, direct access to a search term, its meanings, and ancillary information:
an unabridged dictionary of English; a Japanese-English dictionary.
a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names, or facts, usually arranged alphabetically:
a biographical dictionary; a dictionary of mathematics.
As technology constantly leaps and bounds forward, even the definition of dictionary continues to expand, with the addition of terms like electronic, and CD and DVD. It finally became evident that there was a need for some sort of book which made this information available.
One of the first was Samuel Johnson. In 1755 he published a book giving the information value of many English words. However, he didn’t resist the temptation to include some social comment along with his definitions. He referred, disparagingly, in his dictionary definition for oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” His biographer, James Boswell, noted that Lord Elibank was said by Sir Walter Scott to have retorted, “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?”
Most people are only interested in what a word means right now. I often am fascinated by etymology, what a word first meant, and how it has matured and changed, sometimes over centuries. For example, the word ‘girl’ used to mean ‘boy.’ Actually, when the word was first used, it indicated a young child of either sex. As Germanic languages provided the base for ‘boy’, the word ‘girl’ was left to indicate only females.
Which came first, the color orange, or the fruit? Old English didn’t have a word for ‘orange.’ It was simply known as ‘aielloredd’, yellow-red. When Europeans first discovered the plants in Northern Africa, the Spanish pronounced the natives’ name for them as ‘Naranja.’ In English ‘a naranja’ became ‘an orange,’ and the word was also used to identify the color.
When British colonists first asked Australian Aborigines for the name of those funny, hopping animals, the natives didn’t care, and had not bothered to name them, so they answered kanga roo, which, in their tongue, means, “I don’t know.” And so, another mistaken word was added to the language. There was room for it, because the Abo word for a four-legged canid pet, was ‘dog.’