Dictionaries and Meanings


This site traces the history of English dictionaries from the 1500s to the present day. You can examine how words change their meaning over time, and how scholars have argued over ideas of 'correct' spellings. You can see how new words have travelled into the English language from all over the world, having been transported in scholars' books, woven into the tales of sailors, carted about in merchants' crates, or brought from overseas by migrants. You will also discover how English words have travelled out of England, to the Caribbean for instance, where they have developed new forms. You can read about the secret languages of pickpockets and vagabonds, and learn how much toilet humour there was in 18th century England.

Click on the pages listed on the right to explore the dictionaries themselves.

We have included extracts from a whole range of dictionaries: from 16th century spelling lists and the first English dictionary ever written; from lexicons of criminal slang and Georgian swear words; from Dr Johnson's famous dictionary of 1755; from dictionaries of Caribbean English and Yiddish; and from the world-famous Oxford English Dictionary.

You might think that a word's definite meaning, or its proper spelling, can be found in the dictionary. But these pages are a reminder that dictionaries are complicated things, and that words often have several meanings, and may have had several spellings. The dictionaries show us that language is always changing and that dictionary-makers (lexicographers) are there to record the words of their time - even though some of them hope to set down rules and fix the language forever. The collection also illustrates how the dictionary form itself has varied - the books go from simple spelling lists to a sort of word archaeology. You will learn how attitudes towards language have changed, and see that many dictionaries reveal more about the personality of the lexicographer than about the English language.