Bureaucracy: The Smallest English dictionary in the world

The Smallest English Dictionary in the World: Comprising Besides the Ordinary and Newest Words in the Language Short Explanations of a Large Number of Scientific, Philosophical, Literary and Technical Terms. Glasgow: David Bryce and Sons, 1900. Print.


The Smallest English Dictionary, published around 1900 by the active Scottish press David Bryce & Son, is a miniature book measuring 1⅛ x ¾ inches (27 x 20 mm). It has 384 gilt-edged pages, and was bound in maroon morocco by Zaehnsdorf of London (UNT Library). “Johnson’s Dictionary” is embossed on the spine in gold letters, and there is a gold floral decoration, similar to a fleur-de-lis, beneath the title. There is a frontispiece engraving of Samuel Johnson inside the cover. The volume reportedly contains 13,000 definitions set in 1½ point type. In its miniature format and voluminous content, The Smallest English Dictionary enacts bureaucratic functions while simultaneously subverting them.

David Bryce (1845-1923) became a partner in his father’s Glasgow printing business in 1862, at the age of 17, and inherited the business when his father died in 1870. His first publishing effort, a large-format edition of Robert Burns’ poetry, sold only 5000 copies. Noting the growing popularity of miniatures in Victorian society, Bryce reprinted the edition in two volumes at a fraction of its original size, and sold 100,000 copies. Bryce soon became one of Scotland’s most famous publishers, issuing at least 40 different titles during the time the tiny books were in vogue. Bryce & Son’s catalogue of miniature books features British and Scottish literature, religious texts, including the Koran, reference works, and other miscellaneous publications (Catalogue). Bryce printed his books using “photolithography,” an innovative reduction process that allowed him to print at extremely small sizes while maintaining high readability. He also had access to special paper from Oxford University publishers, who owned a process to make ultra-thin but opaque paper called “India Paper.” It allowed hundreds of sheets to fit into very thin volumes. Cutting-edge materials and new technology made Bryce the most successful miniature book publisher in the Victorian Age (“Miniature Books”).

Miniature books have existed since the advent of printing, though their popularity grew as print technologies allowed for greater ease of production. Miniature books were popular because they served practical functions (Bromer). Portable and relatively cheap, we might say that the miniature book was an equivalent technology to today’s cellphone, allowing people to carry with them and access a great deal of information with ease. Readable miniature books were usually between 3 and 5 inches tall, but not all miniature books were practically oriented. Miniature books also allowed publishers artistic license to craft technically perfect yet essentially unreadable books.

The particularly small size of Bryce & Son’s The Smallest English Dictionary may indicate that it falls into this category, yet a look at an undated Bryce & Son catalogue complicates this assumption, for many of the publisher’s miniature books came with a protective case and a magnifying glass—including The Smallest English Dictionary (Catalogue). The case and the glass signify use; at the same time, the process of using this miniature aligns it subtly with less quotidian functions. Removing the dictionary from the case, pulling out the glass, finding the word through the glass—these acts constitute a ritual. In this way, the book’s miniature status brings attention to the act of seeking itself. The steps involve encourage the seeker’s awareness of the process he or she is participating in. Whether or not Bryce & Son intended this, to read their miniature books is to participate in the act of seeking as much as, if not more so than, finding. Finally, without the magnifying glass, the words and definitions in The Smallest English Dictionary cannot be read, so its use value depends on mediation.

Because The Smallest English Dictionary, by way of its genre, takes part in the codification of knowledge, it also takes part in bureaucratic (mediating) functions. Because it is difficult to use, it simultaneously resists its bureaucratic function. The miniature book is interesting because the means of assessing its function and value are various. Is it meant to be used, or is meant to be an object of art? Where does one capacity end and the other begin? In the case of this particular book, how does having or not having the case or magnifying glass change the way the object was circulated and perceived?

The Smallest English Dictionary is connected to other texts in this exhibit, most clearly Glossographia and Johnson’s Dictionary in Miniature. All of these volumes have origins in the tradition of early modern reference books, and indicate to the reader socially appropriate understandings and uses of language. Perhaps because it straddles a line between function and art, knowing and seeking, the Smallest English Dictionary feels particularly modern, even post-modern. But like many texts in this exhibit, The Smallest English Dictionary both participates in and resists aspects of bureaucracy, and examining these texts may remind us that what we think of as a contemporary conundrum—the navigation of such systems—is not, in fact, particularly modern.

Find The Smallest English dictionary in the world in the UNT Libraries Catalog.