Wackadoodles and Welly wanging: Dictionaries at Yale

Centuries of linguistic labors to create an English dictionary are housed in the collections at Yale, including early editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language,” and alumnus Noah Webster's "American Dictionary of the English Language."
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An annotated proof copy of "A Dictionary of the English Language" by Samuel Johnson. (London: Printed by W. Strahan for J. and P. Knapton, 1755.) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

As it does every year, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added hundreds of new words and phrases in 2014, including “g’day,” “wackadoodle,” “bitcoin,” and “Welly wanging” — a sport where one hurls a Wellington boot as far as possible within set boundary lines.

Forever a moving target, the OED is the culmination of centuries of work to list and define words in the English language. Myriad results of such linguistic labors are housed in the collections at Yale, including early editions of the OED — celebrating 131 years since the printing of its first fascicle on Feb. 1 — and Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language.”

In England, the idea of having one word explained by another began in the 8th century, when medieval scholars would write Old English over the Latin words in a given text to translate them — a practice known as glossing.

“Some of the monks began to create an alphabetical list of Latin words with English equivalents, and we wound up with a primitive Latin English dictionary, or glossaria,” said Fred Robinson, the Douglas Tracy Smith Professor Emeritus in English.  

According to Robinson, the first real English dictionary, published 1721, was “A Universal Etymological Dictionary of English” by Nathaniel Bailey, who listed “all the words of the English language,” including definitions, some indication of their pronunciation, and their etymologies.

A handwritten note from the annotated proof copy of “A Dictionary of the English Language” by Samuel Johnson.

Approximately 30 years later, author, poet, and critic Samuel Johnson published “A Dictionary of the English Language,” which became the standard for the next 100 years. An annotated proof copy in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has been scanned in its entirety, includes handwritten notes for additions and changes by Johnson and his helpers. 

Robinson noted that Johnson basically copied Bailey’s words and definitions, but added the use of quotations from English literature to demonstrate the proper use of a word. He also emphasized “status labels,” describing a word as “formal,” “colloquial,” or “informal.”

“He would describe a word like, ‘mob,’ shortened from ‘mobile vulgus,’ as scarce English, a word used only by ignorant people,” he said. “Rather than just simply describe language, dictionaries prescribe what words to use and not to use.”

Kathryn James, curator of the Early Modern and Osborn collections at the Beinecke, published a definition from the first edition of the dictionary in a word-a-day blog for the Johnson tercentenary in 2009.

“It was interesting spending a year with him,” she said. “You can really see Johnson grappling with the English language, excerpting from a set of authors — Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, and Donne — and figuring out what the textual lineage of the words are.”

According to James, who often shows the proof copy to visiting classes, the dictionary also represents an interesting set of political decisions.

“English is a language of conquest, and the book itself is a kind of archive,” she said. “Johnson is working at a point in the 18th century where an English political identity is crystallizing. The English wanted to have mastery of their own tongue in order to be culturally equal to their counterparts on the continent.”

Noah Webster makes his mark

Yale became part of the history of dictionaries during the American Revolutionary War thanks to a young undergraduate named Noah Webster, Class of 1778. A sixth-generation American, Webster — born in West Hartford and buried in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven — was decidedly anti-British and even ventured north in 1777 to fight in the Battle of Saratoga.

“By the time he arrived, British general Burgoyne had been defeated,” said Robinson. “But for the rest of his life he despised the English and was determined that the American language should be distinguished from the English language.” 

In 1828 Webster published the “American Dictionary of the English Language,” considered the first important work after Johnson. A first edition resides in the Beinecke Library. An extremely influential publication, it included American words not found in English dictionaries.

“His etymologies were terrible, but his definitions were superb,” said Robinson. “The editor of the OED later said that Webster was a genius in defining words. It was imitated in both America and England, and became a valuable contribution to the English lexicon.”

Creating the Oxford English Dictionary

The origins of the OED date to the mid-19th century, when a group of academics from The Philological Society of London (PSL) decided it was high time to create a definitive version of the English language dictionary. Richard Chenevix Trench presented a paper in 1857 “On some deficiencies in our English dictionaries,” rallying members to re-examine existing versions. One year later, PSL resolved to complete a “new English dictionary.”

Trench led the project and helped create the “Reading Programme,” a corps of volunteers that, according to the OED, “provide editors with quotations that illustrate how words are used.” The program still exists today.

In 1879 Clarendon Press, a division of the Oxford University Press, agreed to publish the work. That same year, a Scot named James Murray came on board as the editor of the project. The publishers initially anticipated that it would take 10 years to complete a four-volume set. When after five years of intense work the lexicographers had only made it as far as “ant,” PSL reconsidered its timetable and decided to release the dictionary in fascicles, or bundles.

The first fascicle “A–Ant” of “A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” was published on Feb. 1, 1884. It would take another 44 years before the first complete 10-volume set was published in 1928, containing nearly 400,000 words and phrases. The designation “Oxford English Dictionary” appeared above the title on the cover of the 1895 fascicle “Deceit–Deject.”

The complete 1928 edition of the “English Dictionary on Historical Principles,” housed in Sterling Memorial Library (level 6M).

“This is the greatest dictionary in the world. They did something in the OED that was never before attempted in Great Britain,” said Robinson. “They gave the biography of every word in the English language, from its earliest meanings.”

According to Robinson, the OED borrowed heavily from a German system in which the history and biography of words was traced. The OED, he noted, also featured another innovation that may sound trivial at first, but became very important — it used italics, boldface, and capitalizations.

“Before he became editor of the OED, Murray had worked for a press and was very familiar with typeface,” said Robinson. “Each word in the OED is introduced in boldface, the different meanings are indented, with the etymologies in italics. You get an immediate sense of what is there.”

The Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut, houses one of Yale’s two first editions of the OED. The second volume is on level 6M of the Sterling Memorial Library.

One curious chapter in the history of the OED is the story of William Chester Minor, an ex-army surgeon who graduated from the Yale School of Medicine in 1863. Haunted by his experiences as a Union Army medical officer in the Civil War, Minor suffered from extreme paranoia and fatally shot a man in 1872.  He was convicted of murder and confined to an asylum for the criminally insane. An avid reader, Minor joined the volunteer Reading Programme around 1880 and over the next 20 years become one of the main contributors to the OED.

From sabotage to kidnapping

Yale houses a wide range of dictionaries that extend beyond English-to-English translations. Some were even used by spies in World War II. The Beinecke houses the “Pocket Dictionary of Sabotage,” a miniature booklet from 1943 purporting to be a “thumb dictionary” of French and German terms. In reality, the book is full of instructions for members of the French Resistance on how to sabotage German machinery, manufacturing plants, trains, and automobiles.

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”


— Noah Webster, Yale Class of 1778

The Bass Library houses the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) by Frederic Cassidy — which gives every variety of American English in every part of the country. It was integral in solving a kidnapping case in the 1990s, when a child in Illinois was abducted from her home. A ransom note demanded that money be left “in the green trash kan [sic] on the devil strip at the corner of 18th and Carlson.”

The police had a list of suspects, but no concrete leads. They sent the note to DARE, which told them that the term “devil strip” — the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street — was only used in Akron, Ohio. This piece of evidence clearly pointed to one suspect, who confessed when confronted.

Always room for improvement

At the Yale Center for British Art, which also houses a first edition of Johnson’s dictionary, Elisabeth Fairman, chief curator of rare books and manuscripts, made her own submission to the OED, in order to update the history of “Wellington boot.”

Fairman — who was unfamiliar with the sport of Welly wanging — uncovered an invoice for a pair of Wellington boots in her collection that predated the OED’s earliest use of the term. She contacted the editors with the information.

“I received a very gracious reply that OED prefers printed evidence, and in fact they had just discovered an early advertisement for a Wellington boot in an 1813 edition of The Morning Chronicle that predated my 1815 invoice,” she said.

The OED publishes its next set of updates in March, including new words as well as amendments to current listings, like that for the Wellington boot. For his part, Robinson remains an avid reader of the dictionary.

“I find it fascinating. It’s quite a challenging undertaking, when you think about it. How would you define the word ‘accordion’? It’s really quite hard to do!”

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Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,