An Assemblage of Abecedaries

Annotated Bibliography

Robin Camille Davis, April 2011
Entry for T.W. Baldwin Prize for Book Collecting contest. Awarded 2nd place.
Entries listed by category, then primary author or editor, if credited. Forty-eight items total.


English dictionaries

Barney, Stephen A. Word-Hoard: An Introduction to Old English Vocabulary. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
An examination of some of the 2,000 most common words in Old English. The entries are not organized alphabetically, but, interestingly, arranged etymologically into 277 groups, which are then arranged by frequency of appearance. The pages are also, charmingly, copies of the original typewritten manuscript, complete with Barney’s corrections in pen.

Barnhart, Clarence L., et al. The Barnhart Dictionary of New English Since 1963. Bronxville: Barnhart/Harper & Row, 1973.
New words coined between 1963 and 1973. Some are slang words, but there is also a plethora of new technical and scientific words, a by-product of new advances in computer science.

Brown, Lesley (ed.). Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
A descriptive British dictionary. Each entry includes etymology, approximate date of earliest recorded use, and examples pulled from literature. In this regard, the written word, rather than the spoken word, is privileged by the OED. And by a “shorter” OED, of course, Oxford means two heavy volumes of a mere 2,000 pages each.

Clark-Hall, J.R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. BN Publishing, 2009.
This complements Barney’s Word-Hoard, as it is a full dictionary. Proven useful when studying Old English poetry.

Forrest, Francesca M. Pocket Rhyming Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2001.
Pocket-sized. Entries are organized by the vowel sound of the word’s last stressed syllable and ordered alphabetically and by syllable count.

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology. London: Penguin Books, 2006.
Selections from Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary as chosen and edited by the linguist David Crystal. Here we have the most famous definition of lexicographer as “a harmless drudge.” Because only the “interesting” entries, as deemed by Crystal, were chosen, the dictionary is rather diminutive, compared to Johnson’s original.

McKechnie, Jean L. Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary. Unabridged 2nd ed. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1971.
Its sheer mass of 2,306 medium-weight pages suggests the influence Webster’s Second was accorded in the world of dictionaries. It is matter-of-fact and decidedly prescriptive. The unabridged second ed. was originally published in 1905. In 1961, Webster’s Third was published to a torrent of initially unfavorable critiques. Edited by Philip Babcock Gove, who approached language descriptively, the Third was quite a departure from the Second. As David Foster Wallace (q.v.) points out in “Authority and American Usage”, the Third “included terms like heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them” (Consider the Lobster, 74). This second edition, in addition to sporting a lovely graphic two-tone, mid-century-flavored cover, offers a counterweight to the more liberal dictionaries in my collection.

The New Oxford American Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press: 2008. Electronic.
This is the dictionary chosen by Amazon to be included gratis with the Kindle electronic reading device. It is possible to change the source dictionary for the built-in word lookup function, but one must purchase the desired dictionary. (Two of the more popular alternate dictionaries: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., currently sold for $9.27; and the OED, 2nd ed., sold for $47.96.) The Kindle’s dictionary function is extremely useful: simply move the cursor in front of a word, and the first two lines of the definition appear at the bottom of the screen. While the New Oxford American is fairly concise, it also includes example sentences and special usages, which makes for entries much longer than two lines (one must press a button to see the entire entry). Additionally, the software, like most digital dictionaries, isn’t yet smart enough to detect the use case of a word. Only the first, most common definition appears, which often may not be for the precise usage in the text. As a last critique, the eBook edition includes only the cover image, barebones copyright and digitization information, and the main body of the text — no introduction, not even a mention of who the editors were.

Pickett, Joseph P. The American Heritage College Dictionary. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Generally regarded as prescriptive. Edited with the input of a 200-person Usage Panel that includes Harold Bloom, Robert Pinsky, David Foster Wallace, and Steven Pinker.

Webster’s Primary School Dictionary. New York: American Book Company, 1892.
A small dictionary made for small hands. The type strikes me as very evocative of the late 19th century: a slab typeface for the headwords, paired with a didone face for the text. Two previous owners’ names are inscribed on the front endpapers, accompanied by childish scribbles in pencil. A few pages have been separated from the rounded binding.


Evans, Ivor H. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 14th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Brewer’s is a delight to browse. The dustjacket is regrettably heinous, and upon removing it, one finds that the lettering stamped on the cover is similarly difficult to swallow. All the more reason, then, to open the book and begin reading.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File: Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. 2nd ed. New York: Facts on File, 1997.
Surprisingly thorough and often humorous. Hendrickson says in the preface that he has included apocryphal etymologies ("no good tale is omitted merely because it isn't true”) and has marked them as such. The non-apocryphal entries I have cross-checked all corroborate with other reliable etymological sources. It’s not meant to be an academic source, but is rather a pleasurable read, like Brewer’s. The Facts on File is a series of reference books written by different experts.

McCrum, Robert, et al. The Story of English. New York: Viking, 1986.
“A companion to the PBS television series.” A well-illustrated pop history of the language written with care and enthusiasm.

Mish, Frederick C. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2001.
Like Brewer’s or Facts on File, this volume only covers what it deems to be the more interesting word histories, making it more of a browsing book than a reference book. It lacks the playfulness of the aforementioned, however.

Picoche, Jacqueline. Dictionnaire étymologique du français. Paris: Le Robert, 2008.
An exhaustive look at French etymology. Of course, most words are Latinate in origin, but Picoche points out in the introduction that the editors made sure to include the definitions of the words of origin as well, something older etymological dictionaries expected the reader to know already. This edition includes four interesting annexes: (1) words formed by doubling syllables, e.g. ronron; (2) words formed from the onomatopoeic sounds made by animals, e.g. chouette; (3) words with etymologies connected to historical, literary, or mythical figures, e.g. daguerreotype; and (4) words with etymologies connected to real or mythical places, e.g. gruyere. Like all contemporary Le Robert publications, this dictionary is handsomely typeset.

See also: Asimov, Isaac, under “Dictionaries Written by Non-Lexicographers.”

Usage Guides

Follett, Wilson, et al. Modern American Usage. New York: Hill & Wang, 1966.
Some have regarded Follett as the successor or complement of Fowler. His magnum opus was unfinished at his death, and it was completed by his friend Jacques Barzun and other editors. This volume’s dustjacket is as pleasantly erudite as the prose inside.

Fowler, H.W., and Ernest Gowers. A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Fowler scales the heights of prescriptivism with his academic endeavor to put any silly business within American English to a stop. Long regarded as an essential reference for writers, it serves as the foundations of many house style guides.

Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
This edition is set most beautifully in Bodoni by Peter Buchanan-Smith and illustrated most delightfully by Maira Kalman. Admittedly, the book itself is not a dictionary or an abecedary, but it contains three sections with entries arranged alphabetically (III, “A Few Matters of Form”; IV, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”; and a glossary.

Foreign Language Dictionaries

Alejandro, Rufino. Conversational Tagalog. Reprint. Manila: National Bookstore, 2005.
Grammar with some vocabulary. Double-printing on some pages.

Augé, Paul, et al. Petit Dictionnaire Français. Librairie Larousse: Paris, 1936.
Pocket-sized. French. One inscription and one bookplate from two previous owners. Each index letter is historiated with charming drawings of things that begin with it. Includes an amusing table of Principaux solécismes et barbarismes — expressions to avoid and suggestions for rephrasing, eg, “Ne dîtes pas ‘un pays infecté de bandits.’ Dîtes ‘un pays infesté de bandits.’”

Ehmcke, Susanne. Das Kleine Bilderlexikon — The Little Picture-Dictionary — Le Petit Dictionnaire en Images. Ravensburg: Otto Maier Verlag, 1949.
This illustrated dictionary for children is trilingual. The book itself is undated, but a similar listing on AbeBooks dates publication at 1949. The German is printed in fraktur, which led a previous owner to rewrite the German words in a childish hand beneath each entry. The charming illustrations depict houses, families, forests, zoos. It is interesting that a German-English-French dictionary for children should appear in 1949, with World War II in such recent past. Perhaps it is representative of an effort to foster international understanding.

Freese, Holga, et al. Universal German Dictionary. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 1993.
German-English, English-German. Pocket-sized. A miniature version of Langenscheidt’s German-English dictionary (q.v. Messinger).

Harper Collins French Dictionary. 2nd ed. New York: HarperResource, 2000.
French-English, English-French dictionary. Used nearly to tatters over the course of an undergraduate education in French.

Love, Catherine E., et al. Italian Dictionary. 3rd ed. Glasgow: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993.
Italian-English, English-Italian. Pocket-sized.

Messinger, Heinz (ed.). Langenscheidt’s New College German Dictionary. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 1973.
German-English, English-German. The preface opens with a cheeky reference to the frustration English-speaking readers expressed at a previous version of the dictionary, which lacked grammatical information for each German word. This edition includes the pronunciation and stress in each entry as well as all irregular forms.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert. New Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.
Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Includes a section on grammar and a short dictionary of proper names. Despite the title, suitable only for rather large pockets.

Rey, Alain, et al. Le Robert Micro. 3rd ed. Paris: Le Robert, 2006.
French. At over two inches thick, this is hardly a “micro” dictionary. In his preface, Alain Rey states that Le Robert Micro fulfills a “social need” for a concise lexicography for francophone students, students learning French, and adults who want to master the language. The dictionary contains a good 35,000 words, including idioms and examples, but it drops the historic aspect of words (like etymology and dating) in the interest of being “essentiellement fonctionnel”. Le Petit Robert, by contrast, contains almost twice as many words and their historical backgrounds.

Richardson, Elbert, et al. McKay’s Modern Portuguese-English and English-Portuguese Dictionary. New York: David McKay Company, 1943.
Confession: this was purchased primarily for the modernist typographic treatment on the dustjacket.

Simpson, D.P. Cassel’s Latin-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. New York: MacMillan General Reference, 1987.
Latin-English, English-Latin. Simpson is rather less inclined to match register than Traupman (q.v.). Podex, podicis is defined as “fundament, anus.”

Spanish-English and English-Spanish Dictionary. Framingham, Massachusetts: Dennison Library, 1968.
Pocket-sized. Pleasantly yellow.

Traupman, John C. The New College Latin & English Dictionary. 2nd ed. New York: Amsco School Publications, 1994.
Latin-English, English-Latin. This dictionary makes a point to match the register of words between Latin and English. Podex, podicis, for example, is defined as “ass, behind.”

Subject-specific Dictionaries

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. 4th ed. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1994.
Terms organized alphabetically, from Abbreviation to Zoomorphic initial. High-quality printing, so entries can be photographic as well as textual in nature.

Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. 5th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
What book collection could be complete without this guide? Carter lists each bibliographical term in alphabetical order, and labels parts of the book with their terms (e.g., hinge, head, half-title). The snippet from the Providence Journal on the back describes the book nicely: “[Carter] is witty, informative, accurate, and, best of all, sane.” This edition is in excellent condition, save for some small tears and marks on the dustjacket.

Cuddon, J.A. Penguin Dictionary of Literary Theory & Literary Terms. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books, 1999.
Extensive (to the tune of 1,000 pages) glossary of literary terms, though somehow never the ones I am searching for. Nonetheless, each entry is not only a definition, but a historical account.

Methuen, Eyre. A Dictionary of Impressionism. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973.
Alphabetical by artist name.

Putnam, George Palmer. Putnam’s Dictionary of Events. 6th ed. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927.
A tabular view of world history, often divided into France/Germany, Eastern Empire, England, and “The World, elsewhere.” See beautiful, colorful, three-foot-long pull-out map of worldwide history tipped into back.

Schult, Joachim, et al. The Sailing Dictionary. 2nd ed. Trans. Barbara Webb. Dobbs Ferry: Sheridan House, 1992.
Replete with concise illustrations, the Sailing Dictionary looks at all the terms of the sport, from Alfa to Z-Twist. Nautical language, half ancient and half contemporary, must be incredibly precise to describe physical locations. Just reading through the terms gives the non-sailor a glimpse of how humans must navigate nature.

Abecedaries and Dictionaries Written By Non-Lexicographers

Adams, Douglas and John Lloyd. The Deeper Meaning of Liff. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1990.
Adams and Lloyd take the names of towns and invent silly meanings for them, e.g., “Ghent, descriptive of the mood indicated by cartoonists by drawing a character’s mouth as a wavy line.”

Asimov, Isaac. Words on the Map. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.
Asimov, renowned for his science fiction, takes a turn as a historical geographer by revealing the etymologies behind place names. In his preface, he states that his impetus was the sudden creation in the mid-twentieth century of many new names of nations like Ghana, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The design of the book is fascinatingly modernist and cool.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. London: The Folio Society, 2003.
A compilation of Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce’s acerbic definitions to otherwise innocuous words, e.g., “Historian, a broad-gauge gossip.” As Miles Kington relates in the introduction, Bierce originally wrote these in column for the San Francisco weekly Wasp. This edition, like most Folio Society publications, is well bound and comes in a slipcase. I was, however, disappointed that the marbled paper on the cover was merely printed, and that the historiated initials were pixilated and reminiscent of 1990s clipart. Still, Bierce’s pithy misanthropy is eminently enjoyable.

Carrera, John M. Pictorial Webster’s. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2009.
An extensive compilation of engravings and electrotypes from Webster’s dictionaries from 1851–1909. Includes interesting notes and commentary in the appendices. Carrera spent many months sorting through the engravings in the Webster’s archive and produced the first edition of the dictionary on a hand-operated letterpress. This second edition is offset printed, though still beautifully bound. On the project’s website, Carrera describes reading a dictionary composed solely of randomly selected images as “a true surrealist experience” ( With regard to its place in my collection, many of the engravings in the Pictorial Webster’s can also be found in Webster’s Primary School Dictionary (e.g., abacus, dragonfly, quince). A century lies between their publication dates, but the images are identical.

Da Fonseca, José, and Pedro Carolino. English As She Is Spoke. 2nd ed. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2004.
Selections from the notorious 1855 Portuguese-English phrasebook. Two Portuguese men, the popular story goes, promised their publisher a phrasebook appropriate for schoolchildren and travelers. They knew no English whatsoever, but were armed with two dictionaries, Portuguese-French and French-English. The result is translations such as “The soup is bringed” and “One she is ugly, at-least she is gracious.” The most disconcerting phrases, however, are the ones perfectly (by some linguistic miracle) translated, like “We are lost” and “They are all dead.” The history behind English As She Is Spoke serves as a reminder that even the most exhaustive dictionaries cannot contain the mysterious vastness of language.

Foer, Jonathan Safran, et al. (ed.). The Future Dictionary of America. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2004.
An American dictionary in the future as imagined by over 200 writers and artists. Because definitions are often politically bent, e.g., “bush, a poisonous family of shrubs, now extinct” (Paul Auster), the dictionary already seems like a time capsule. Admittedly, it is surprisingly poorly typeset for a McSweeney’s publication, but it is well illustrated by such artists as Chris Ware.

Gregg, John Robert. Gregg Shorthand Dictionary. New York: Gregg Publishing Company, 1916.
About 17,000 of the words deemed most common in English are included in this handbook, typeset next to their corresponding shorthand representation. This dictionary does not include anything instructional: one must purchase the Manual of Gregg Shorthand to be able to decipher the elegant, concise curlicues. Thus in 2011, the shorthand is beautiful but completely impenetrable.

Hendrix, Lee and Thea Vignau-Wilburg. An Abecedarium: Illuminated Alphabets from the Court of the Emperor Rudolf II. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.
A hardback facsimile of alphabets (one Roman majuscule, one Gothic minuscule) drawn and illustrated in brilliant color by Joris Hoefnagel (1542?–1601), as commissioned by the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Each letter is drawn twice, once as an outline with geometrical guides on a grid, and once filled in. The alphabets are therefore instructional as well as decorative. The Roman majuscules are each paired with a Psalm or other biblical verse that begins with (or has near the beginning) the letter, and are illuminated with figures and symbols relevant to Scripture or the emperor. The Gothic minuscules are historiated with fanciful, often bizarre motifs, and feature no accompanying text.

Pflughaupt, Laurent. Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany. Trans. Gregory Bruhn. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.
A fascinating examination of the Latin alphabet. Each letter’s section includes a timeline of its various forms, its origin story, and other interesting facts.

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. 4th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2005.
Because aa is a word.

Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. London: Abacus, 2007.
This is not a dictionary, nor an abecedary, but it includes the essay “Authority and American Usage”, first published in Harper’s in 1999. Wallace discusses the “seamy underbelly of US lexicography”, namely the usage debates surrounding prescriptivism/descriptivism, politically correct English, and the problem with academic prose. His enjoyable writing further piqued my interest in dictionaries, and suddenly I have no more room on my bookshelves.

Robin Camille Davis, April 2011.