Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum


Nathan Bailey's dictionaries were extremely popular in the 18th century: they were larger and more comprehensive than any other dictionaries of the day, and they also sold more copies. Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum, first published in 1730, contains 48,000 words. Samuel Johnson owned a copy which he scribbled over, underlining sections and adding his own ideas. It would later help him to write his own dictionary.

An array of words

Bailey includes words from all corners of society in his lexicon: 'hard and technical words', those found in arts, sciences and 'mysteries', words used in anything from anatomy and cosmography to cookery and handicrafts, from painting and optics to meteorology, navigation and philosophy. Unusually, he also includes names of people and of places in Britain.

The dictionary is designed for a wide range of readers, having been compiled, writes Bailey, 'as well for the Entertainment of the Curious, as the Information of the Ignorant, and for the Benefit of young Students, Artificers, Tradesmen and Foreigners, who are desirous thorowly to understand what they Speak, Read, or Write'.

New techniques

Many of Bailey's methods would later become important dictionary making conventions. For example, Bailey explored the origins of words, for which he drew on his knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Latin; he provided advice on pronunciation; and he attempted to compile a more complete list of words than any other English dictionary writer before him, squeezing in not only specialist or 'hard' words, but also dialect, slang and taboo words. The fact that he included slang words shows that his work was far ahead of its time – such words were left out of most non-slang dictionaries until well into the 19th century.

Full title:
Dictionarium Britannicum: or a more compleat universal etymological English dictionary than any extant ... Collected by several hands, the mathematical part by G. Gordon, the botanical by P. Miller. The whole revis'd and improv'd with many thousand additions, by N. Bailey.
1730, London
Book / Dictionary
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Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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