15 Fascinating Facts About Dictionaries That Will Make You Want to Pick One Up
From dropped words to fake definitions, learn fun facts, hearsay, and scandal about our most useful language resource, and the words that make it up.
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The first-ever dictionary
The earliest single-language dictionary in the English language was known as the “Table Alphabeticall.” Produced by a man named Robert Cawdrey in 1604, it contained around 3,000 words. It didn’t give “definitions” so much as synonyms; the author’s purpose, he wrote, was to introduce more complicated words to “ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons,” so they could better understand scriptures and sermons.
The word with the most meanings
You might be surprised to learn what the most “complicated” word in English is—that is, the word with the largest number of separate definitions. And, well, there actually are a couple of answers. The current winner is technically “set,” and it’s held the title since 1989. In that edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the word had…wait for it…430 separate definitions. This amounted to a total of 60,000 words to explain one! But in the next (print) edition of the OED, due out in 2037, there will be a new champion. According to the editors, the word “run” has now amassed 645 separate meanings…for the verb form alone! It’s amazing to think that a three-letter word can carry so much meaning.
The longest word… is a joke
Move over, antidisestablishmentarianism! The longest English word that generally appears in dictionaries is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” the name of a lung disease. It has forty-five letters. According to Lexico, this word was actually created to poke fun at long, overly technical medical terms. But the mastermind behind the word hadn’t seen anything yet. Another, much longer word is actually considered the longest in English—and it’s another scientific term. It’s the name for a program nicknamed “titin,” and it has a whopping 189,819 letters! It would take a full 12 pages to write them all out, so, understandably, dictionaries choose to omit it.
Less-long longest words
Yes, the 28-letter “antidisestablishmentarianism” does get a title of its own. It’s considered the longest “non-coined, non-technical” word in most dictionaries. Admittedly, it’s not in common usage today, as it was created to refer to the Church of England in the 19th century. But another word deserves a shout-out. According to Grammarly, “incomprehensibilities,” at 21 letters, has been named the longest word “in common usage.”
A murderer was a contributor to the first Oxford English Dictionary
This is one of the quirkier tales about the creation of the dictionary! William Chester Minor was a Civil War veteran suffering from serious paranoid schizophrenia after experiencing the horrors of war. Specifically, he was having repeated nightmares that there was an intruder in his room. One night in 1872, Minor shot at what he was sure was an intruder—it turned out to be an innocent passerby, and Minor had killed him. Minor confessed to the murder, explained what made him do it, and was committed to the Broadmoor Insane Asylum.
While imprisoned at the asylum, Minor started contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary’s “mail-in volunteer system,” sending in words to the dictionary’s editor, James Murray. Murray found that Minor (whom he did not know was in an asylum!) was one of the most prolific and by far one of the most valuable contributors. The two men would eventually meet almost 20 years after the start of their correspondence.
Lots of new words are added every year
At the end of every year, you’ll probably see a few lists of the funniest, most surprising, most slang-y words that were added to the dictionary that year. (In fact—check out these new words in the dictionary for 2019!) But such lists contain only a hand-picked few of upward of 1,000 added to the dictionary every year! In 2018, for instance, Merriam-Webster added 640 words in April alone and 841 words in September. Of course, such additions are offset by dictionary words that go extinct, for better or worse.
The dictionary included a “fake” word for five years…
Dictionary editors are only human, so they do make mistakes! Perhaps the most famous dictionary error of all time is “dord,” the imposter word. While editors were compiling words for the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary, a card for an abbreviation accidentally ended up in the pile of word cards. (The plan had been to keep abbreviations and words separate.) The abbreviation was “D or d,” a capital or lowercase D short for “density.” But since it ended up in the word pile, it was printed in the dictionary as “Dord,” meaning “density.” But no harm done; no one noticed the error for five years! Learn about more funny errors in famous works of literature.
… and was missing a “real” word for 50
If it seems like it’d be virtually impossible for dictionary editors to remember every single solitary word, you are correct. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary debuted, in 1888, it was missing the word “bondmaid.” An old-fashioned (even then) term for an enslaved girl, “bondmaid” had been in common use in the 16th century and was derived from a Biblical translation. You might find it remarkable that it took until the 1933 edition for the word “bondmaid” to finally appear, until you learn that it actually took 50 years for the second edition to come out.
Poems complicate things
In addition to the famous “dord,” there are quite a few other fake words that have ended up in the dictionary. A couple of these were derived from poems. One such word, which appeared in Richard Paul Jodrell’s Philology on the English Language in 1820, was “phantomnation.” While it sounds like the loyal fan base of some sort of ghost creature, it’s actually a word that comes from the epic poem The Odyssey. Odysseus travels to the Underworld and makes offerings to “the phantom-nations of the dead.” Another “word,” “redripening,” came from a poem by Richard Savage. (It was actually “red-ripening,” describing strawberries.) Jodrell included that one in his compilation too. Those rotten poets; how dare they be creative with their use of language!
Speaking of poems…
Children’s poet Shel Silverstein wrote a poem, called “Memorizin’ Mo,” about a guy who memorized the dictionary. (We’re unaware of anyone who’s accomplished this feat in real life.) It appeared in his 1981 poem collection A Light in the Attic. Unlike the dictionary, the poem is very brief. The full poem reads:
“Mo memorized the dictionary
But just can’t seem to find a job
Or anyone who wants to marry
Someone who memorized the dictionary.”
Yup, it’s a bit of a downer! Marriageability aside, here at RD.com we’d find someone who’d memorized the dictionary to be a dream job candidate!