A world of words: 17th and 18th Century dictionaries

This month’s Special Collections blog posts celebrates languages by exploring the 17th and 18th Century dictionaries housed in our Old Library. They include texts that share definitions, translations, and even advice on pruning fig trees…

Dictionaries in the Old Library, St John’s College, Oxford

Queen Anna’s new world of words; or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues
John Florio, 1611

The fourth edition of John Florio’s World of Words expands on his original 1598 text. This edition is notably dedicated to Anne of Denmark, wife to King James I. The dictionary promises “a supply of some thousands of usefull words”, covering a wide range of topics from grammar to magic to hawking. The copy held by St John’s College Library retains its clasp.

You can access a copy of the text here.

Ductor in Linguas, or The guide into tongues
John Minsheu, 1617.

The guide into tongues covers English, Welsh, Low and High Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Unsurprisingly such an ambitious project required a large number of contributors, as revealed by the first few pages of the book. It was one of the first known texts to use subscription to fund its publication.

You can access a copy of the text here.

Lexicon Tetraglotton
James Howell, 1660.

The Lexicon Tetraglotton allows the reader to navigate between English, French, Italian and Spanish, including not only individual words but proverbs. The four languages can be found represented in the frontispiece as four women. The Lexicon was written by James Howell, the first English language writer to earn his living solely from writing. Howell opens the text with a poem setting out the history and geography of the languages, which “are here together fix’d”.

You can access a copy of the text here.

The gardeners dictionary
Philip Miller, 1731.

Philip Miller’s Gardeners’ dictionary collects not only the names of plants, but advice for gardeners from “the most experience’d gardeners of the present age”. The text even goes into the effects of meteors and the four basic elements according to natural philosophy. Miller was a leading eighteenth century botanist and the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden. In the dictionary he is not afraid to risk controversy, proposing a method for pruning fig trees which he knows “will be condemn’d by great numbers of people”.

You can access a copy of the text here.

A dictionary of the English language
Samuel Johnson, 1733.

Samuel Johnson almost singlehandedly wrote his dictionary across seven years. It is famous for its thoroughness and detail, as well as its occasionally humorous entries. Throughout the text Johnson supports his definitions with literary quotations, creating a sense of language in action.

You can access a copy of the text here.


More dictionaries from our special collections can be viewed by appointment – please contact the Library if you would like to access one. A wide range of modern dictionaries can be found in the Laudian Library.

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