Bureaucracy: Glossographia

Blount, Thomas. Glossographia; Or, a Dictionary, Interpreting the Hard Words of Whatsover Language, Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue: With Etymologies, Definitions, and Historical Observations on the Same. London: Printed by T. Newcomb, sold by J. Martyn, 1670. Print.


Ladies, listen up! Are you suffering from battology? Are you too docible, not docible enough? An educational hiration preventing you from feeling quite at ease among your friends or would-be lovers? Glossographia’s cosmical definitions can help you with the hard words hurting your (hopefully!) pretty head. But don’t take my word for it. This now-fragile copy, bound in cracked oxblood leather, fits discreetly in a satchel. In 1851, Eleanor Nancy Tanner was given it by her mother, who, with Mr. Blount, it may be presumed, noticed a continued presumptuousness and far fetching of words. Designed for the “common” reader and user of “hard words” (like Eleanor), Blount’s lexicographical work Glossographia sought to discipline certain speakers and the language they employed.

The Glossographia was first printed and sold in 1656 (British Library). This third edition was published in 1670, the same year that Blount’s most famous, or, at least, most re-printed, work appeared on the book market once again, another treatise on the use of the English language, The Academy of Eloquence: Containing A Compleat English Rhetorique, Exemplified Common Places and Formula’s digested into an Easie and Methodical Way to speak and write fluently, according to the Mode of the present Times: With Letters both Amorous and Moral Upon emergent Occasions (1654). A similar work to Blount’s, the English Dictionary: or an Interpreter of Hard English Words by Henry Cockeram, was first published in 1623; this was the first book of its kind to use the word “dictionary” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). These several works exemplify what have been called “literary guides” (Ezell 450), which might be more familiarly related to a modern reader as the earliest versions of Reader’s Digest, a kind of ‘Language and Literature for Dummies.’

The “hard” words included in Blount’s dictionary are borrowed or antiquated words; Blount names Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Teutonick, Belgick, British, and Saxon as source languages. During the seventeenth century a debate raged among lexicographers about the propriety of adopting foreign words into the English language (Francoeur, 7). Blount took the side of “openness” in the debate over borrowed words (Francoeur, 7), although he chides common users of hard words for their displays of affectation and for attempting to confuse their listener rather than promote understanding (Blount, “To the Reader”). Blount also elucidates specialized terms drawn from “'Divinity, Law, Physick, Mathematicks, War, Musick, Architecture; and other Arts and Sciences” since he recollects his frustration when encountering such in his own scholarly endeavors and being unable to divine their meanings from the context (Blount, “To the Reader”). Blount’s claim to have captured some of the words for his dictionary in the ‘wild’—that is, in real, literary texts—has been substantiated through scholarship under the purview of the OED, and it affirms his understanding of the importance of the authenticity of dictionaries—that their words must “actually occur in the literature” (Schafer, 406). In fact, scholarship has shown the Glossographia to contain two words which were used in English literature and which no other dictionary had defined before, even though Blount credits many preceding dictionaries and lexicographers for providing the material for the majority of his text (Schafer, 406, 405). Like Johnson’s Dictionary a century later, Blount’s work forms part of the long lineage of disciplining language as a mean of empirically legitimating emergent fields of professional activity.

While Blount, as a British lexicographer, was certainly working to taxonomize the English language, his Glossographia could also be read as resisting social hierarchies coded in language in the seventeenth-century. From its prefatory materials, the book seems to intend to empower a class of people previously unacquainted with very much learning or culture: it is designed to promote “at least the semblance of literary sophistication” in its readership (Ezell, 451). Which class of people, and even which gender, Blount envisioned himself helping is a subject of some debate; but, be they “‘young male gallants’” or “Ladyes, Gentlewomen, Schollers, and Strangers” (Ezell, 451), none could be expected to have boasted a very advanced level of education prior to the rise of the middle class in the seventeenth century (Ezell, 450). Blount addresses an audience which was not from “an elite literary culture” (Ezell, 451) and thus his “literary entertainment” is designed for those readers who were more than functionally literate but by no means scholarly, and who had surplus income as well as time to sit and read (Ezell, 451).

This compact tome is quite old; the pages, significantly yellowed, or rather browned, with age, are even older than its second, replacement cover and binding would suggest. The cover is leather but ragged and decayed; its binding, imperfectly re-stitched, causing the pages to lay slightly askew, is still quite tight, with the exception of the first couple of pages having come totally detached. The pages of the prefatory materials, fourteen pages in all, are, inconveniently, left unnumbered, with page 1 being the start of the dictionary itself, its first word: abacted.

Find Glossographia in the UNT Libraries Catalog.