12 Interesting Facts about Dictionaries

Have you heard the one-line joke, usually attributed to Steven Wright, about the dictionary? ‘I finally got around to reading the dictionary’, it goes. ‘Turns out the zebra did it.’ It’s a good joke, but of course ‘zebra’ isn’t the last word in any English dictionary worth the name (what about ‘zoo’, for starters?), and besides, Steven Wright probably never said it. Still, we’ll overlook that and get on with this post comprising a dozen of the choicest and most fascinating facts about dictionaries down the ages.

The first English dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, described itself as being ‘for the benefit of Ladies … or other unskilfull persons’.

Chambers Dictionary defines a kazoo as ‘a would-be musical instrument’ and an éclair as ‘a cake, long in shape but short in duration’.

The world’s bestselling reference work is the Xinhua Zidian Chinese language dictionary, which has sold over 400 million copies worldwide.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites Ralph Waldo Emerson saying ‘I hate quotations’; ironically, this is in fact a misquotation.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s first job after the First World War was working on the letter W for the Oxford English Dictionary.

If laid end to end, the typescript for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would have stretched from London to Manchester.


Work on the definitive dictionary of the Welsh language began in 1921 but was not completed until 2002.

The first volume of the definitive Dutch dictionary came out in 1864; the fortieth and final volume did not appear until 1998.

The first editor of what became the Oxford English Dictionary was Herbert Coleridge, grandson of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Dr Johnson misread the word ‘soupe’ in William Camden’s Britannia, and erroneously included the word ‘foupe’ in his Dictionary. (More about the funny side of Johnson’s Dictionary here.)

Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary of 1721 defined ‘cat’ as ‘a creature well known’, ‘strawberry’ as ‘a well known fruit’ and ‘black’ as ‘a colour’.

The word ‘esquivalience’, which appears in the New Oxford American Dictionary, was invented by one of the editors to catch out plagiarists.

If you enjoyed these dozen dictionary facts, check out our interesting word facts.

Image: Samuel Johnson’s Folio and Abridged dictionaries together, by Jkarjalainen, 2014; Wikimedia Commons.

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