Robert Cawdrey (circa 1538 – post 1604)
The 16th century was a transformational period for the English language. Thanks to the renewed interest in literature, science, medicine and the arts and the expansion of international trade a large number of new words entered the language at a prodigious rate. For many it was difficult to keep track with it all. Others were concerned that the fashion for peppering speech with fancy new words meant that people were forgetting their mother tongue. As rebel priest and schoolteacher, Robert Cawdrey, wrote, “they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell or understand what they say.”
If there was ever a time when someone needed to take stock of the situation and help people navigate their way through the changes in language and understand what the new words meant, this was it. With the assistance of his son, Thomas, Cowdray made it his mission to make sense of what was going on by way of an instructional text which went by the short title of Table Alphabeticall. It was to be the first English language dictionary – previous lexicons had been dual or multi-language affairs.
Cawdrey set out his slightly patronising mission in the longer title to his magnum opus. There we learn that the book consists of “A table alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c.” His methodology was outlined as was his target audience; “With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons.” And he was clear as to the intended benefit of perusing his work; “Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.”
In all, his table alphebeticall contained between 2,500 and 3,000 words. Each word in the list was accompanied by a definition but the definition was short and to the point. Cawdrey did not concern himself with the etymology of the word or citations to demonstrate its usage or any nuances in its range of meanings. His primary concern was to provide the key with which the ordinary person could unlock the meaning of many of these new-fangled words. The relatively low number of entries meant that the dictionary was hardly a comprehensive survey of the language. Rather, Cawdrey concentrated on words which were considered to be hard or unfamiliar to the general language, particularly those derived from Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French.
One of the major innovations of Cawdrey’s dictionary was that the entries appeared in alphabetical order. That this was revolutionary is illustrated by the extraordinary lengths to which Cawdrey went to explain what was meant by alphabetical order and the order in which the letters appeared, the implication being that this was unfamiliar territory for his readers at the time. If for nothing else, we owe Cawdrey a vote of thanks for this and he went some way to achieve his ambition to better organise the English language.
In an age when what passed for education was the preserve of the aristos and wealthy, Cawdrey played no small part in standardising the spelling of words and enhanced the understanding of the basic rules of our wonderful language.