The First English Dictionary, 1604
Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall
Distributed for Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
With an Introduction by John Simpson
English is one of the most complicated languages to learn, and its constantly evolving vocabulary certainly doesn’t help matters. For centuries, men and women have striven to chronicle and categorize the expressions of the English language, and Samuel Johnson is usually thought to be their original predecessor. But that lineage is wrong: Robert Cawdrey published his Table Alphabeticall in 1604, 149 years before Johnson’s tome, and it is now republished here for the first time in over 350 years.
This edition, prepared from the sole surviving copy of the first printing, documents Cawdrey’s fascinating selection of 2,543 words and their first-ever definitions. Cawdrey subtitled his dictionary “for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other unskilled folk,” for his aim was not to create a comprehensive catalog, but rather an in-depth guide for the lesser educated who might not know the “hard usual English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French.” Each entry reveals an intriguing facet of early modern life and the cultural mores of the time. There are familiar terms—“geometrie” was defined as “the art of measuring the earth,” and a “concubine” was described as a “harlot, or light huswife”—and amusingly idiomatic definitions: "prodigall" is "too riotous in spending," while "hecticke" is "inflaming the hart, and soundest parts of the bodie.”
"Every time you look up a word in an English dictionary, you unwittingly pay homage to an unsung, half-forgotten Rutland schoolmaster who in 1604 came up with the brilliant idea of an alphabetical dictionary. Previously, no-one had imagined what today seems so blindingly obvious, that a dictionary should run seamlessly, from A to Z. This brave little book is the first attempt to make a readable inventory of the most interesting English words four centuries ago. It is difficult to overemphasize its importance to the English language."
"It is magicke, inchaunting, and makyth me to maffle and bleate. A fulgent thing, deserving of great claritude."
"This book is back in print after vanishing for almost four centuries. It is a dictionary, but you won't want to look anything up in it. Instead, you will want to read it straight through, like an adventure tale—where the hero is our own young language, as it begins to pull itself up by the bootstraps. One word after another amuses you, bewilders you, and astonishes you. Best of all, the dictionary comes with another story behind the scenes, elegantly revealed for us by John Simpson: how a defrocked priest, living in remote rural England, continually in trouble with church authorities, came to devote himself to the creation of this strange and wonderful book."—James Gleick, author of Issac Newton and Chaos