The book I’m currently reading is The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester ©1998, and it’s about the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary, around the time of the American Civil War.
It’s a much more engaging topic than you’d think at first glance. Here’s an excerpt:
The “English dictionary,” in the sense that we commonly used the phrase today – as an alphabetically arranged list of English words, together with an explanation of their meanings – is a relatively new invention. Four hundred years ago there was no such convenience available on any English bookshelf.
There was none available, for instance, when William Shakespeare was writing his plays. Whenever he came to use an unusual word, or to set a word in what seemed and unusual context – and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples – he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do. He was not able to reach into his bookshelves and select anyone volume to help. He would not be able to find any book that might tell him if the word he has chosen was properly spelled, whether he had selected it correctly, or had used it in the right way in the proper place.
Shakespeare was not even able to perform a function that we consider today as perfectly normal and ordinary a function as reading itself. He could not, as the saying goes, “look something up.” Indeed the very phrase – when it is used in the sense of “searching for something in a dictionary or encyclopedia or other book of reference “– simply did not exist. It does not appear in the English language, in fact, until isolated 1692, when an Oxford historian named Anthony Wood used it.