‘If Shakespeare Had Been Able to Google…’

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory

by Roy Blount Jr.
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 364 pp., $25.00

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

by Ammon Shea
Perigee, 223 pp., $21.95

The First English Dictionary, 1604

by Robert Cawdrey, with an introduction by John Simpson
Oxford: Bodleian Library, 154 pp., $25.00

There have never been so many words, and we’ve never been so obsessed with them.

An entire literary genre comprises nothing more than compilations of words, in order—which generally means alphabetical order—with or without commentary and exegesis. These are wordbooks, including but not limited to dictionaries. English now has tens of thousands of wordbooks, with hundreds more arriving each year. They may or may not concern themselves with what words mean or how to spell them. Over the next few months, the shelves will need to find room for dictionaries of plants and flavors, politics and numismatics, zoology and psychopathology; wordbooks for consultation, exam study, and game playing; collections of euphemisms, profanity, slang, and cant; a dictionary of terrorism and a dictionary of drinking water; joining a big crowd of “Words You Should Know,” “Words Smart People Should Know,” and “Words You Should Know to Sound Smart.”

How did wordbooks get so popular? W.H. Auden once said his desert-island book would be a dictionary, “for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways”—but we might put this under irony. Wordbooks are hardly meant for reading. A perennial best-seller in this category takes as its entire purpose the drawing of a line between words and nonwords: The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Others—such as the less popular but more authoritative Oxford English Dictionary—have come to accept the reality that no such line can ever be drawn. Growth in the language is breaking all bounds. The OED, having noticed, can no longer confine itself to the printed page.

The birth of the genre in English can be dated exactly. It came in the age of Shakespeare, in 1604, when Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and defrocked priest, published a short book with a long title that began A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes…. Cawdrey’s dictionary (a word he apparently didn’t know) runs to 2,500 words. His definitions are terse, and they don’t drip with confidence or erudition. Some words he drops into blind categories:

abricot, kind of fruit.

alablaster, kind of stone.

citron, kind of fruit.

crocodile, kind of beast.

Others he struggles to explain:

gargarise, to wash the mouth, and throate within, by stirring some liquor up and downe in the mouth.

horizon, a circle, deviding the halfe of the firmament, from the other halfe which we see not.

ironie, a mocking speech.

If he doesn’t know something, he has nowhere to look it up. He does have the honor of inventing the perfectly useless circular definition:

gentile, a heathen.

heathen, see Gentile.

For spelling he cares not at all—because there is no such thing as a right or wrong way to spell a word. He does announce, “Heerby also the true Orthography,” but consistent orthography doesn’t exist. In his very title, Cawdrey indiscriminately writes “words” and “wordes.”…

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