Wenches and the Dictionary

Dictionaries as we know them are a fairly recent technology, like four-centuries-old recent. William Cawdry’s A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, is considered the “official” first dictionary because it was alphabetized and had a list of words with brief definitions. It specifically contained hard usual words, because no one really needed the easy ones defined for them. Cawdry stated in the very long title of the booklet that it was made for “the benefit and help of ladies, gentlewomen, and any other unskillful persons”. John Kersey’s 1702 dictionary was the first to include the world ‘girl’ with the succinct and straightforward definition of “- a wench”.

The Oxford English Dictionary is in its third edition as of now, the first one was released over a period of four decades, from 1884-1928, and that’s considered a quick release by the standards based on the pace of some of the other ones which could take over a century to release. Overall, dictionaries are slow to come out, and so, some definitions can be beyond outdated, even in today’s publications. However they do seem to reflect the language of the times they began to get compiled in.

I made a blog post in June about the word ‘queer’ and started it by making a list of ways that the word was defined. It wasn’t a very pleasant list. Since then I have had the pleasure to take classes with Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and a former Principal North American Editor of the OED, and had my mind blown by how complex dictionaries are in relation to society (and I’m only half way through the course).

I have personally never considered that dictionaries are made by people. They are just databases that I use to look up how a word is spelled, and if it is, in fact, a word that I think it is. But like many other database they tend to reflect the people working on them. Noah Webster, for example, was a man who had done a lot with his life, and his dictionary is one of the most successful ones today. He helped establish copyright and created the first daily newspaper in NY. His dictionary was also propaganda to promote patriotism and increase the distance from the British culture while cementing Americanism. He coined “American-English” as a phrase because he didn’t like that British English was used in America and preferred to spell color without the ‘u’. He included the American words “plantation”, “prairie”, “coyote”.

I do have a point to all this. Dictionaries reflect the language we use, but, more so, used. Dictionaries have also been created and curated by men who lived centuries ago, and so will always reflect them, for what is a dictionary without its definitions. Definitions can’t have spoken examples in the etymology, only written ones, and who could write freely write a century ago and have their writing be taken seriously? Who could freely write over the past millennium? Words have power, but they have that power because only the words of the powerful are heard.

There was little space for women’s talk, and slang, and anything that wasn’t considered proper, which usually means that only white, rich guy talk is allowed to exist respectably. I think it is encouraging to know that many dictionaries are much easier to edit now with the advent of the internet, and maybe sometime soon, they will better reflect the equality we are striving for. Now when I look up the definition of girl I don’t get ‘wench’, I get ‘- a female child’ and ‘- a young or relatively young woman’. If we give it a couple more centuries think of the progress we’ll make.

Here’s a great video of Jesse speaking on the history of the dictionary. It really is a great little lecture, and I highly recommend it.


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