Lexicography is an area of applied linguistics that focuses on the compilation of dictionaries (practical lexicography) as well as on the description of the various types of relations found in the lexicon (theoretical lexicography). It is neither a new science nor a new craft. Historians generally agree that the ﬁrst dictionaries can be traced back to the explanations of diﬃcult words inserted into Latin manuscripts in the Middle Ages. These glosses evolved into glossaries which were sorted alphabetically or thematically and, as Cowie (2009: 2) points out, came to fulﬁll a vital function in teaching and the transmission of knowledge. The use of Latin words to explain more diﬃcult Latin ones foreshadowed monolingual dictionaries, with their headwords and deﬁnitions, while explanations of hard Latin words in Old English or Old French can be seen as a precursor of modern bilingual dictionaries. Dictionaries are primarily compiled to meet practical needs. They are also cultural artifacts
which convey a vision of a community’s language. The tension between prescriptive and descriptive approaches has often made lexicographers uncomfortable, since, as Atkins and Rundell argue (2008: 2), many users perceive dictionaries as ‘authoritative records of how people ought to use language’. Modern lexicography is more concerned with a descriptive approach where the lexicographer compiles a description of the vocabulary of a given speech community. Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical (1604) is usually considered as the ﬁrst printed
monolingual English dictionary. However, the history of lexicography remembers Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as the ﬁrst modern and innovative dictionary of English. Johnson’s dictionary reﬂected the need for a prescriptive and normative authority which would serve to establish a standard of correctness. In his ‘Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language’, addressed to Lord Chesterﬁeld in 1747, Johnson discussed all the crucial issues which lexicographers are faced with, even today, when starting a dictionary project, ranging from inﬂectional and derivational morphology, to pronunciation and etymology. The representation of syntactic information (Johnson did not use the modern term ‘subcategorization’) attracted his attention when he pointed out that one ‘dies of one’s wounds while one may perish with hunger’. He stressed that ‘every man acquainted with our language
would be oﬀended with a change of these particles’. Johnson’s preoccupations are still at the heart of the creation of current dictionaries, especially learners’ dictionaries. He was a radical thinker who was well ahead of his time and who managed to shed light on the nature of language and meaning, long before philosophers like Wittgenstein started addressing the crucial issue of word meaning. He asked many important questions which are still hotly debated in contemporary lexicography circles. He was aware of the need to establish clear criteria for selecting words to be included in dictionaries, or for distinguishing between general language and specialized terminology. The term ‘corpus lexicographer’ did not exist in 1755, but because he was the ﬁrst to base his dictionary on authentic examples of usage, collected from the works of English authors, he was deﬁnitely a precursor of corpus lexicography. A monument of English lexicography is undoubtedly Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary
(OED), whose ﬁnal section was published in 1928. The original aim of the project, which started in 1879, was to produce a four-volume dictionary which would record the history of the English language from Anglo-Saxon times, using nearly two million citation forms to track the genesis and evolution of lexical items. Several supplements were published in the twentieth century (the ﬁrst supplement appeared in 1933) and, today, the OED includes around 300,000 entries deﬁning over half a million lexical items (Murray et al. 1933). The electronic version, which corresponds to the 20-volume integrated work, oﬀers powerful search and browse functionalities which provide scholars with exciting vistas to research the history and evolution of the English language. Historical dictionaries have been compiled for several other languages, such as for French,
the prime example being the Trésor de la langue française, whose sixteen volumes are based on a huge corpus of millions of authentic citations from literary texts. It took nearly 150 years to compile the Dutch Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT), which, with its 40 volumes and 400,000 headwords, aims to provide an objective linguistic description of the vocabulary stock of that language. All these major historical dictionaries cover general-language words, but also dialectal, jargon and slang terms, as well as oﬀensive and swear words which are more likely to be left out from general-purpose dictionaries.