Comparative Lexicography

Today, people have access to dictionaries everyday and any time. Looking up a word’s meaning in the dictionary is quite easy; however, attempting the compilation of a dictionary is not a simple task. Lexicographers during the 18th and 19th century spent most of their lives putting together English words in one context.

One of the most two important and known lexicographers were Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. These two marked the history in forming their own dictionary. And what is interesting about these two, is that each one of them had two different dictionary style, characters and word entries. Thus, I will compare three entries by using the digital editions of the two dictionaries, the 1755 edition of Johnson and the 1828 edition of Webster.

First, some words do not exist in Johnson’s dictionary. For example, when looking up the word “heaven”; I only found a list of other entries where the word was mentioned. In contrast, Webster’s dictionary had more than 5 entries for the word heaven.,heaven

Similarly, the word “race” does not exist in Johnson’s dictionary, whereas in Webster’s dictionary the word is available.,race

What’s interesting about Webster’s dictionary is that he extended it by adding words from different fields, and by “explaining many new words, which recent discoveries in the physical sciences had introduced into use”.

In addition, each dictionary has its preface where the lexicographer shares his point of view. Johnson tried to correct the language. He also omitted many words, but one should take into consideration that he was able to achieve his goal on its own, along with all the circumstances that occurred in his life. Unlike Johnson, Webster tried to figure out the origins of the words.

Moreover, the word “eye” has around fifteen definitions in the two dictionaries. Some of them are identical in Webster’s dictionary such as the 3rd entry “Look; countenance.” and the 4th entry “4. Front; face.” ; however, he revised the definitions by adding many details and explanations. I noticed that Johnson include the source or the citation in each example he gives. In contrast, Webster doesn’t cite the examples inserted, he creates his own sources. Few examples that are added are cited from the bible. For example the second and the 15ths definition of Eye in Webster’s dictionary shares an example from the bible:

  1. Sight; view; ocular knowledge; as, I have a man now in my eye. In this sense, the plural is more generally used.

Before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you. Gal.

  1. The power of perception.

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened. Eph.1.,eye

In addition, Johnson seems to occur more examples of a word than Webster. All of the examples added in his dictionary are taken from literary sources, especially from Shakespeare and poetry. Whereas in Webster, I hardly found a Shakespearian cited example. I think that Webster was trying to deduce the examples added by Johnson that aren’t accurate as much as they were during the 17th century, due to the changing of language among time.

Semantic change

Words changed through the years by meaning and contexts. For example, the words “tweet”, “to escape” and “to starve” had other meaning/s in the history of English language.

According to Oxford English Dictionary (OED), tweet is defined as: to make a brief high-pitched sound or call, or a series of such sounds. Also in extended use.

The word is still used nowadays in this context; however, a new meaning came across the world few years ago. The word “tweet” is used on social media excessively and it is defined as a message tweeted by people on twitter. The new definition of tweet added by OED is the following: trans. To post (a message, image, link, etc.) on the social networking service Twitter. Also: to post a message to (a particular person, organization, etc.).

Here is an example of a contemporary use of the verb tweet: “I just tweeted”.


Adding to that, the verb “to escape” has many meanings in the OED and many of them are still relevant today. For example, this following sentence posted on twitter: “Judy’s story: how I escaped child marriage in Kenya”, shares the following meaning of escape: intr. To get off safely when pursued or imperilled; to avoid capture, punishment, or any threatened evil; to go unhurt or unpunished.

One of the other definitions offered by OED of the verb escape is:  b. Of organisms, fluids, etc.: To issue, find egress, from some confining envelope or enclosure. The example offered by OED concerning this meaning is the following: 1882   Garden 18 Mar. 189/2   At the time of flowering the leaves are only escaping from their buds.

This meaning of escape is not used anymore comparing it to the first definition mentioned before.

And finally, the verb “to starve” is now used as a synonym of the verb hungry. People nowadays tend to use this verb to express their hunger. For example this girl tweeted a tweet, by writing “I’m starving.. I need food”.

And many people would be surprised to know that it actually meant to literally die out of hunger. In the present day, to starve is used without expressing the literal sense. According to OED, Starve : To die. Said of a person or animal. In late use app. to die a lingering death, as from hunger, cold, grief, or slow disease. Also, in spiritual sense, of the soul. Obs.

It also has another meaning: With various constructions, specifying the cause of death. In later use with modified sense: To be brought gradually nearer to death, to be in process of being killed; to suffer extremely. Now only dial.