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The notion of ‘hard words’

Rise of the dictionary
Dr. Johnson’s dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary
Domain-specific dictionaries
Pronunciation guides

During the 16th and 17th centuries there arose a need for new words for the many discoveries and developments in different areas of science. Many authors felt that English was imperfect when compared to the classical languages Latin and Greek and thought that one means of remedying this deficiency would be to borrow new words from these sources. Indeed the general impression that English had decayed considerably continued into the 18th century (and is still to be found nowadays in many quarters). For instance, Jonathan Swift published a Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue in 1712 because he was of the opinion that the language was deteriorating rapidly. Attitudes like these led straight to the prescriptivist tradition which came to the fore in the 18th century.

Before this time there was pressure which led to a considerable expansion of the vocabulary of English, largely through borrowings from Latin and Greek. Such loans were not always welcomed by the general literate public and the expressions which were employed to convey putative new meanings were dubbed ‘inkhorn terms’ and ‘hard words’.

The term would appear to have been used for the first time in the title of John Day’s glossary A gatheryng of certayne harde wordes in the newe Testament, with their exposicion (1551) — a translation of a French work in which the reference ‘hard words’ renders the expression mots difficiles contained in the title of the original work.

The rise of the dictionary

Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) is normally considered to be the earliest of all ‘hard word’ dictionaries, as it is the first one to mention this term explicitly on its title-page: ‘A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes...’. In compiling his dictionary, Cawdrey drew to a large extent on previous Latin-English dictionaries such as Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (1565) and Thomas Thomas’ Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae (1587). The aim of the dictionary is clearly indicated in the subtitle to the work: ‘for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons’.


John Bullokar’s English Expositor (1616) quickly followed suit, thus establishing a tradition of hard word dictionaries. In comparison with Cawdrey, Bullokar included more words and provided more detailed explanations of his entries: some of his glosses were expanded into paragraphs or even short articles taking up at times one of the two columns of the pages of his dictionary. Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionarie (1623) was the next major work in the tradition of hard word dictionaries. In his search for terms to be included in his work Cockeram relied largely on previous hard word and Latin dictionaries, but also added several entries taken from various texts and not yet reported in those types of publications.

Other authors were soon to follow and produced further hard word dictionaries such as Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656). Apart from dedicated dictionaries There are also grammars with hard word lists, stretching back for considerable time, for instance, Edmund Coote’s The English Schoole-Maister (1596) — an early grammar of the English language — contains such a list of hard words, which seems to have inspired Cawdrey in the preparation of his dictionary.

Apart from actual dictionaries there were also lists of words published as with the famous collection by the English natural historian and language commentator John Ray (1627-1705) published in 1674 as A Collection of English Words not Generally Used. This is a valuable source of information on the lexis and phonology of varieties of Early Modern English.


General dictionaries before Johnson were produced by a variety of authors who can be seen as forming the background against which Johnson can be truly assessed. Below is a selection of such dictionaries; the last one can be seen as a precursor of Johnson’s great dictionary.

      Edward Philips New World of English Words (1658)
      Edward Cocker English Dictionary (1704)
      Nathan Bailey Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721; 1727)
      Nathan Bailey et al. Dictionarium Britannicum (1730)

Dr. Johnson’s dictionary

The single towering figure in early lexicography is undoubtedly Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Johnson responded to the general feeling of his time that an authoritive work of lexicography for English was needed which would set standards of correctness for the language. He was commissioned by a group of London book-sellers to perform the task and in 1755 after some eight or nine years of preparation his Dictionary of the English Language appeared and was recognised in his lifetime as a masterpiece of its kind. Johnson had a great respect for literary authority and sought to clarify definitions by quoting from the great English authors who preceded him, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, etc. His stance was conservative but it was oriented towards attested (literary) English rather than trying to propagate some kind of overy Latinate and ornate use of language. It is difficult to quantify his influence but as a figure he is unmatched until Noah Webster (1758-1843) in America and James Murray (1837-1915) in England/Scotland, the initiator of what was to become The Oxford English Dictionary (completed in 1933).

There is a tradition of referring to Samuel Johnson as ‘Dr. Johnson’. He did not do a doctoral thesis at a university but received a honorary title from Trinity College, Dublin in 1765.

Johnson’s dictionary became the standard work of English lexicography because of its range, objectivity and use of quotations from major authors to back up definitions given. It was not until over a century later that it was superseded by the dictionary which was to become the Oxford English Dictionary.


The Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford University Press publishes a wide range of dictionaries all of which are derivates of a few basic types. The largest and original one is simply termed the Oxford English Dictionary and itself goes back to the A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles which was started by the Scottish lexicographer Sir James Murray (1837-1915), though plans go back to the middle of the 19th century (see reference to R. C. Trench below). A proposal was made by Richard Trench in 1857 to the Philological Society to design a new dictionary which would serve as a definitive work on the vocabulary of English with complete historical coverage. The Scotsman Murray became the main editor. The first letter was published as a volume in 1888 and all the 12 vols were completed in 1928. A thirteenth supplement volume came out in 1933 (after which it was called the Oxford English Dictionary published by Oxford University Press.

A supplement to this version was produced between 1972 and 1986 in four volumes under the guidance of Robert W. Burchfield. A second edition of this dictionary (1989) is available in three formats: in 20 volumes, in 2 volumes in condensed print and on a CD-ROM (version 3 was made available in 2002 and version 4 followed some years later). Work on a much expanded third edition of the dictionary is underway at present.

It was finally published in 1928 and 1933.

The two other main dictionaries produced by Oxford University Press and 1) The Shorter Oxford Dictionary and 2) The Concise Dictionary (10th edition, 2000, also available on CD-ROM), both monolingual dictionaries with historical information.
Oxford University Press also publishes some specialised dictionaries, such as the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the Oxford Study Thesaurus or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and related works, such as guide to English usage, as well as the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (compiled by A. S. Hornby) and a bilingual dictionary (1990, by Werner Scholze-Stubenrecht and John Sykesin) in co-operation with the Duden Verlag, all of which are of value to the student of English. The following are some further dictionaries in a similar vein.

      Oxford Paperback Thesaurus. 2001. Second Edition. Oxford: University Press.
      Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 2001. Second Edition. Oxford: University Press.
      The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary. 1991. Oxford: University Press.
      Illustrated Oxford Dictionary. 2003. Oxford: University Press.

Oxford English Dictionary website

Trench, R. C. et al. 1860. Canones Lexicographici; or, Rules to be Observed Editing the New English Dictionary. London: Philological Society.

Murray, James A. H. 1888. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Murray, James A. H. 1900. The Evolution of English Lexicography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.





This is an area within historical linguistics which is concerned with the origin and development of the form and meaning of words and the relationship of both these aspects to each other. Most monolingual dictionaries offer etymological information and certainly the main dictionaries from Oxford University Press do. The largest of all, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, is the main source of etymological information about the English language. The following book is a recent overview of the field which serves as a good introduction for students and scholars alike.

Durkin, Philip 2009. The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford: University Press.

The following books are relevant publications from the area of an older introduction to the field which still retains its value for present-day readers.


1) T. F. Hoad 1993. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: University Press.
2) Malkiel, Yakov 1993. Etymology. Cambridge: University Press.


1) Skeat, Walter W. 1882. An Etymology Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
2) Chambers Etymological Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers.


1) Hüllen, Werner 1999. English dictionaries 800-1700. The topical tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
2) Béjoint, Henri 2010. The Lexicography of English. Oxford: University Press.


1) Roget, Peter Mark 1987 [1852]. Roget’s Thesaurus of synonyms and antonyms. Revised edition by B. Kirkpatrick. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
2) Hüllen, Werner 2004. A history of Roget’s Thesaurus. Origins, developments, and design. Oxford: University Press.

Domain-specific dictionaries

By ‘domain-specific dictionary’ is meant one which deals with a specific topic and which has restricted but more focussed coverage. There is a wide range of domains in this field and some of the works are especially interesting from a linguistic point of view. One subset of dictionaries which offer valuable insights into the development of the vernacular, spoken language are those dealing with slang and cant (a secret language, e.g. of thieves). The second item below is a well-known slang dictionary and the first item a recent in-depth study of these kinds of dictionary.


The following image is of a work dealing with taboo words. Like slang and cant these lexical items can reveal much about language development and change.

In a similar vein are two other books on more peripheral items in the vocabulary of English.


Pronunciation guides

More than in any other European country England is marked by an emphasis on standard pronunciation. The type of pronunciation known today as Received Pronunciation (after Daniel Jones) or under other less precise epithets such as The Queen’s English, Oxford English, BBC English, etc. is a sociolect of English, that is, it is the variety of English spoken by the educated middle classes, irrespective of what part of England they may live in. In the nineteenth century and into this century as well, this accent of English was that fostered by the so-called public schools (private, fee-paying schools) which were the domain of the middle class. It is also the variety which foreigners are exposed to when they learn ‘British English’.