Words don't stand still; they shift and change. But the process is puzzling. To give one example: How did "plausible," which once meant "worthy of applause," become synonymous with "credible"? Is truth so rare that it must prompt applause? Sometimes it seems as if stray meanings float in the common air only to settle and stick like burrs on some dozing old vocable. We like to deplore this. In his "Four Quartets," T.S. Eliot complained of the way words "slip, slide, perish" and threaten to "decay with imprecision." But language thrives out of such decay; it renews itself through our imprecision. Certain philosophers claim that we aren't lords of language but that language "speaks through us." In this view, we're merely the loquacious dummies of a hidden ventriloquist. The notion accounts for our occasional sense of something ungovernable at the very heart of words. It's a dangerous notion and one lexicographers rightly resist.
The earliest word list dates from around 3200 before the common era. It was incised by a Sumerian scribe in cuneiform on a clay tablet that he "signed" by pressing his fingernail into a corner of the wet clay. It was an attempt to fix the slippage of words. But words don't just slip and slide; they perish too. What a Sumerian schoolchild once took as common knowledge now takes teams of scholars years to decipher. In this context, even a laundry list becomes the most precious of litanies.
English lexicographers came late to the task. The first English-English dictionary appeared in 1604. By then the Chinese, the Indians, and the Arabs already had a long history of dictionary-making. When the 13th-century Arab scholar Ibn Manzur compiled his monumental "Language of the Arabs," in 20 thick volumes, he had four centuries of tradition to draw on. But it took an obscure and cranky English clergyman by the name of Robert Cawdrey to compile "A Table Alphabetical, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes" and to do so (as his endless title proclaims), "for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons." This quaint, but pioneering, work has now been published as "The First English Dictionary, 1604" (The Bodleian Library, 154 pages, $25), edited by John Simpson. Mr. Simpson, who is chief editor of "The Oxford English Dictionary," provides a wonderful introduction to this curious compilation, together with a facsimile of the original title page. His edition is based on the only surviving copy of the first printing of the book, now in the Bodleian at Oxford.
Cawdrey, who was born around 1537 and died sometime after 1604, has been best known until now because of a long-drawn-out ecclesiastical lawsuit that he instigated, and eventually lost, thanks to his own stubborn convictions. Cawdrey was an outspoken nonconformist, much given to gibes at bishops and to disparaging the Book of Common Prayer from the pulpit (he called it "a vile book" and exclaimed "Fy upon it!"). Stripped of his office, he turned to lexicography. His years of parish work had shown him the woeful ignorance of his flock and especially of his female parishioners. As his dictionary entries show, he was motivated by a fierce levelling impulse as well.
Samuel Johnson a century and a half later, would remark on the drudgery of his own struggles to complete his great dictionary of 1755 that it principally involved "beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution." Johnson doesn't acknowledge Cawdrey, whose work he may not have known, but the phrase describes his predecessor to perfection. Never has the track of the alphabet from "Abandon" to "Zodiack" been beaten with more sluggish resolution than by the dogged Cawdrey. He takes nothing for granted. If a word begins with "A," he advises the novice to "look in the beginning of this Table" but if with "V," then "look towards the end." For "thou must learn the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the letters as they stand." This may seem more like "Lexicography for Dummies" than a serious dictionary, and yet there's something moving and wholly admirable in Cawdrey's solicitude for the "unskilfull persons" of his time.
Cawdrey was concerned to provide short definitions of the many new words, from Latin, Greek, and French, then pouring into English. He dispensed with etymologies, no doubt wisely. Even Johnson, the greatest of English lexicographers, would be derided by Macauley as a "wretched etymologist." And Cawdrey provided no quotations to illustrate usage. The longest explanation comes under "stigmaticall," which he defines as "knavish, noted for a lewd naughty fellowe, burnt through the eare for a rogue." It's hard to tell whether the tone is one of censure or of sympathy.
Some of his entries are surprising. "Sacriledge" is defined as "church robbing, the stealing of holy things," rather than as "profanation." Is there a sly gibe here at his ecclesiastical overlords? Other entries mystify. He includes "boate," glossed simply as "ship," and yet this old English word can hardly have been obscure. Latinate words are given a literal sense, which was standard practice in Elizabethan England. "Preposterous" is glossed not as "absurd" but as "disorder, forward, topsiteruie, setting the cart before the horse, as we use to say," and this reflects the word's original meaning. There are some lovely lost words, such as "gibbocitie" ("crookedness") or "gargarise" ("to wash the mouth") and some delightful old spellings, as in "gnible" ("to bite").
This is a gnarled, rude, fierce old dictionary and utterly without "calliditie" ("craftiness, or deceit"). It may not provide much "clavicordes" ("mirth") and it certainly "maffles" ("stammers"), but it also "inchaunts"("bewitches"). It shows the raw stuff out of which Shakespeare and Cawdrey's other contemporaries of genius fashioned their more sublime flights. In his Puritan soul, Cawdrey would have considered these mere "blatterings" ("vaine babblings"), but his rough alphabet formed the bedrock on which they rode.