The Dictionary of Difficult Words

From Quick and Dirty Tips [rough transcript of an interview with author Jane Solomon by Mignon Fogarty A/K/A Grammar Girl]:

There’s actually a long history of dictionaries that cover just difficult words. And we talked about one from 1604 called “A Table Alphabetical,” but Jane also sent me a follow up email with details about others, and I’ll share a little bit of that with you now.

There were a bunch of subject-specific dictionaries in the 17th century that covered topics like natural history, law, and medicine, but there was also a trend at this time for dictionaries of thieves’ cant—slang that criminals used because of the rise in rogue literature. People were reading about rogues, and they wanted to understand the language they were reading, so other people made dictionaries for them.

The first comprehensive English dictionary that went beyond difficult words and included regular words like “green” and “the” was Nathaniel Bailey’s “An Universal Etymological English Dictionary,” which was published in 1721 and according to Jane, was the most popular dictionary of it’s time, more popular even than Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language,” which is probably the most well-known of the early dictionaries today. That book was published in 1755, and set the standards and methodologies practiced by lexicographers today, but it was not the first dictionary to include ordinary words. And now, on to the interview.

. . . .

Mignon: Right. So you have a new book out called “The Dictionary of Difficult Words,” and it is one of the most adorable books I’ve ever seen.

Jane: Oh, thank you.

Mignon: It’s a really wonderful so. And what’s so fascinating is that it’s a dictionary just of difficult words. And a lot of people probably don’t know that there there’s sort of a history of those kind of dictionaries. So can you talk us through first before we talk about your book specifically? Can you talk about the history of this kind of dictionary? And maybe when we got the kind of dictionaries people think of today?

Jane: Sure, of course.

Jane: So originally, you know, when we think of a dictionary today, we think of a book that has any words you could possibly want to look up in it.

Jane: But as you mentioned, this is not how dictionaries always were. Originally, they were only lists of vocabulary items and difficult words for people to look up the words they didn’t know in them. So…and they would they would often be very subject specific. So you might have one about falconry. Or you might have one about law or medicine or gardening or something like that.

Jane: And when the first dictionaries were made, a lot of these word lists that were existing were compiled into these dictionaries. So sometimes you hear people talk about the history of dictionaries having a lot of plagiarism in it. It’s because of how these lists were taken in. And this is also why if you look at modern dictionaries, sometimes they have more words about falconry than you would expect because they’re based on this, you know, an early falconry vocabulary list for people who want to learn about falconry.

. . . .

Jane: . . . [O]riginally people just thought, “Oh, yeah. These are words that we don’t know and that’s the only thing we’re going to want to look up.” And then later on, people decided that, no, we want to actually define any word that you’re going to come across because you want to be able to be certain that you understand the meaning. And there’s so many nuances of meaning that a dictionary can really help with that. So you see that. You see that in dictionaries, you know, post Samuel Johnson. He definitely had a lot of more of the simple terms in them. I mean, if you look at Cawdray with “A Table Alphabetical,” which is what year that is, but that that’s from the 1600s. And the purpose of that dictionary is it’s dedicated to ladies and other unskilled persons. And it’s so you can understand the language that sophisticated people bring back to English from other languages when they go and travel abroad, or the difficult words that they learn when they’re when they’re studying. So so dictionaries are have, you know, historically very much been about these hard words.

. . . .

Jane: So I actually was looking at some earlier dictionaries in terms of pronunciation, because in an earlier version of this project, we weren’t going to have pronunciations. And I was wondering, oh, is that is that going to be difficult for the kids? Is there is there any precedent in that? And actually, earlier dictionaries didn’t always have pronunciations. That’s something that is always included in modern dictionaries. But it was not as included in some of these earlier dictionaries. I think Samuel Johnson’s dictionary doesn’t have pronunciations.

. . . .

Jane: So in that case, it’s actually really important to be able to to have the pronunciations right there, especially if you’re if you are an adult reading this to a child and the child asks you how to pronounce the word. It’s right there. So you don’t have to you don’t have to go and look for it. At the same time, I think this dictionary is very much a jumping off point for discovery. You know, there’s only so much you can include in 112 pages. For each each word that I have in there, I only include one definition. I only feature one definition. So if people get very excited about a word, they can go look it up in a bunch of other dictionaries and see what else they can learn about it.

. . . .

Jane: This project started in a very surprising way to me. I wasn’t someone who ever thought “I want to write a book.” I wasn’t someone who ever thought “I want to write a children’s book.” But one day, it was last February, I got contacted out of the blue by the publisher, and they had the idea for the title, and they knew they needed a lexicographer to write it. So they contacted me and asked me if I was willing to do it. And I was. I was actually very familiar with the publisher. So it’s it’s being published by Quarto Kids, and it’s under the imprint Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. And I actually knew this exact imprint because I have a friend who is a children’s author and illustrator who has written award-winning children’s book with the same team. So I responded right away very enthusiastically. “Yes, I would love to do this.” And within the week we had a call. And originally the project was, I think that the publisher and the editor, they definitely knew they wanted it to be a dictionary of difficult words, but they didn’t know how difficult the word should be because in the first call, the publisher, her name is Rachel Williams. She said that when she was younger, she was in a spelling bee, and she got the word “photosynthesis.” Correct. And she felt so good about it. And she would spell the word for everyone, define it for everyone around her. And so it’s the idea of that passion about language that you can develop really young and and the pride you feel when you know a word and how much delight you got as a as a young person talking about the word with everyone around you. So the book, it was sort of to capture that kind of spirit.

Link to the rest at Quick and Dirty Tips and you can listen to the recording of the original interview here