25 Nov /13

War of the words

Enter “Word of the Day” in Google and you have some choice – there are 1,420,000 references with the key hits being dictionaries or reference works adding words to your vocabulary.

But this is nothing new at all. Just look back at an early war of the words – an attack on reader eyeballs:

War of the words: Thomas Blount vs. Edward Phillips

The war of the words was opened up by Blount published his Glossographia in 1656. To make it quite clear what he was writing about, he subtitled his work a dictionary interpreting the hard words of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue. When it came out, it was the largest English dictionary available – comprising 11,000 words – and aimed to help out in unscrambling hard words. It was the first work in English that presented information of where the word originated, identified sources for the words as well as provided illustrations.

Just two years later Phillips gave his reply in the war of the words with his The New World of Words. It started off with a similar number of words and despite almost half of the words in the dictionary being lifted from the competition, it was the clear winner in terms of sales. Edition followed edition and the revised version in 1706 had 38,000 entries.

Blount was extremely unhappy and tried to move things in his favour, correctly stating that much of his competitor’s work had been taken directly from him, and what had not been taken was wrong. In the contemporary battle of the books, he came out a loser. The title of his attempt to trash the competition is extremely clear: World of Errors Discovered in the New World of Words came out in 1673 but did not help turn the tide in his favour.  He had disadvantages of being a Catholic, not having studied at Oxford or Cambridge and not having John Milton as an uncle.

However, in terms of history it was Glossographia that came out on top. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to it 3,688 times, while The New World of Words has only 971 results.

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