Saturday, July 7, 2012

Ladies and other unskillful persons

I love dictionaries. I love to just open one to any random page and make choice discoveries. My all-time favorite is the Oxford English Dictionary. Fortunately I live close enough to a university library to be able to browse at my heart’s content.
Right now I am re-reading that fascinating book by Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1998). Among other fascinating facts and anecdotes, Winchester provides some of the history of English dictionaries. (I realize this may not be fascinating to everybody, but it is to me.)
We learn that in 1604, a schoolmaster named Robert Cawdrey published “the very first true monolingual English dictionary,” thus providing “a pivotal moment in the history of English lexicography.” (Now, is that fascinating or what?) It was a small book with only some 2500 entries that didn’t attempt to cover the field. He entitled it A Table Alphabeticall…of hard unusual English Words.
The quote from the preface that I want to share has less to do with a fascination for dictionaries than with cultural attitudes toward women. In the preface to his dictionary of hard words, Crawdrey notes that the book is chiefly “for the benefit & help of Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskilful persons, Whereby they may more easilie and better vunderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselves.”
If it weren’t so funny, I’d probably be mad.
I’m glad I live in the 21st century.

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