1582 - Mulcaster's Elementarie

Banner image of Mulcaster's Elementarie


Richard Mulcaster’s 'Elementarie' was first published in 1582. It was written as a pedagogical guide, and was an attempt to make English language and culture more respected and accessible. Until the end of the 16th century, Latin had been the traditional language of learning - English was looked down upon by scholars, and only thought to be good enough for popular books and plays. By stabilising the language, Mulcaster hoped that English would be recognised by scholars for its richness and vitality. He wrote ‘I do not think that anie language, be it whatsoever, is better able to utter all arguments, either with more pith, or greater planesse, than our English tung is, if the English utterer be as skillfull in the matter, which he is to utter.’

A list of words

The 'Elementarie' contains a list of 8000 words. Many of these words are familiar today, such as elephant, gunpowder, bum or glitter. Others are more obscure, like brible brable, carpetknight, or flindermouse. None of these words are accompanied by definitions, and therefore the list cannot strictly be classified as a dictionary – there was no such thing as a purely English dictionary at this time. It is, however, an attempt to start to organise the English language. Mulcaster was writing a little over a century after Caxton had introduced printing to England, and yet there was still considerable variation in the way words were spelled, even in print. Mulcaster disapproved intensely of the way the English wrote ‘without anie certain direction,’ claiming that ‘forenners and strangers do wonder at vs, both for the vncertaintie in our writing, and the inconstancie in our letters.’ To solve these problems, Mulcaster wanted to set down some spelling rules such as using an 'e' to distinguish between words like 'mad' and 'made'.

The idea for a dictionary

Although Mulcaster did not write a comprehensive dictionary, he did write in the Elemenatrie of the importance of such a project: ‘It were a thing verie praiseworthie in my opinion…if som one well learned and as laborious a man, wold gather all the words which we use in our English tung…out of all professions, as well learned as not, into one dictionarie, and besides the right writing, which is incident to the Alphabete, wold open vnto us therein, both their naturall force, and their proper use.’

About Richard Mulcaster

Richard Mulcaster, born c.1530, was the headmaster of Merchant Taylors School in London. He was a very unusual teacher, and in many ways revolutionary. He introduced music, physical education and drama into the classroom, believing these disciplines to be as important as reading and writing. His pupils even performed masques for the Queen and her court. Mulcaster also believed in the right for girls to receive an education. Although Mulcaster’s lessons were known for being disciplined and orderly, he was notorious for snoozing at his desk during lessons, while his boys obediently wrote out their lines.