Bryan Garner on Words

Was the first English-language dictionary penned by a legal lexicographer?

  • Print.

dictionary pages

Image from Shutterstock.

Who was the author of the first English-language dictionary? It’s widely said to be Robert Cawdrey, whose little book A Table Alphabeticall appeared in 1604. Little is known of Cawdrey except that he was defrocked as a priest for refusing to read homilies in church. He was the subject of an ecclesiastical lawsuit in the Court of Star Chamber, which upheld his being stripped of his priesthood. Beyond that, the records are fairly obscure, except for his producing the first English dictionary.

The only known copy of that book resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. I handled it last June. When the librarians brought it to me, I thought there must be some mistake. They handed me a 1616 dictionary by somebody else. After some confusion, we discovered that back in the 17th century, Cawdrey’s1604 book had been bound in the same covers behind the 1616 dictionary.There it was: the unique little bookletwith an average definition of under five words.

But is it really the earliest English dictionary? There’s an academic controversy on this point, and you might usefully weigh in.

The contender for the distinction is John Rastell (circa 1475–1536), who is commonly credited with having written the first English law dictionary. Yet he might just deserve credit for producing the first dictionary in the English language. Though early editions are undated, the first printing is thought to have appeared in 1523. That antedates Cawdrey by 81 years!

But does Rastell deserve the honor? You be the judge.

The case for Rastell

Rastell possessed one of the most original minds of his day. A chancery lawyer, he was also a military engineer, an explorer, a playwright and Sir Thomas More’s brother-in-law. But he is best known to history as a publisher who pioneered new methods of instruction in the common law—mostly using, for the first time, the English language. In 1519, he wrote that English was “sufficient of it self to expound any lawys.”

His most famous book has come down to us as Les Termes de la Ley (The Terms of the Law), but when it first appeared, it had the Latin title Exposiciones Terminoru[m] Legu[m] Angloru[m]. Almost all the editions of Les Termes de la Ley (if I may use its final title) have each page presenting two columns: a law French column and an English column. Here’s an entry from the 1525 printing owned by Harvard Law School:

view est, quant ascun accion real est port, & le tenant ne savoyt bene quel terr il est que le demaundant demaund; donques le tenant priera la view, sc. que il puit veier le terre que li clama. Mes si le tenant ad ew le view en un briefe, et puis le Brief est abbatus per misnosmer de le vyl, ou que ioyntenure, et puis le demandant port une tiel brief vers le tenant; donques le tenant nauera le view in le second brief.

view is when any accion reall is brought & the tenaunt knowyth not well what land yt is the demandant askith; then the tenant shall pray the view, that is to say that he may see the land which he claymith. But if the tenant hath had the view in one wryt & after a writ is abatyd by misnomber [misnaming] of the town, or by jointenure, and after the demandant bringith another wryt agaynste the tenant; then the tenant shall not have the view in the second wryt.

The book consists of 169 entries like that—arranged alphabetically. The left-hand side is law French; the right-hand side is in what modern scholars call early modern English (post-1500).

Cawdrey’s definition of view, by contrast, consists of only seven words: “viewe, behold, marke, or consider, or looke uppon.” Whereas Rastell defined the noun (the older sense), Cawdrey defined the verb (which came into the language about 200 years later).

Now let us consider the scholarly disputants. One is Sir John Baker, undoubtedly the greatest living English legal historian, who is a professor at the University of Cambridge. The other is John Considine, undoubtedly the greatest living scholar of historical lexicography—a professor at the University of Alberta. Both are astonishingly prolific. They clash on the question whether it was Rastell or Cawdrey who produced the first English-language dictionary.

Professor Baker’s case in favor of Rastell is this: The English-language column in Les Termes de la Ley is itself a stand-alone English-language dictionary. It’s certainly not a bilingual dictionary in the usual sense of having a headword in one language and its definition in another. The word view, for example, is considered to have entered English in the early 1300s, during the period known as Middle English. The Oxford English Dictionary records the great majority of Rastell’s words as having already entered the English language before 1523, when Rastell’s book was first printed.

Baker says: “Rastell’s book was not only the first dictionary printed in England. It was also the first printed book of the common law to enjoy an organic evolution under successive editors.” In fact, the book stayed in print throughout the 1600s and 1700s in many editions. An American edition was printed in Portland, Maine, in 1812—nearly 300 years after the first edition.

The case against Rastell

Professor Considine makes two points against Rastell’s Les Termes de la Ley as the first English-language dictionary: (1) it’s bilingual; and (2) it doesn’t so much define words as explain legal consequences.

First, the right-hand column doesn’t count as a monolingual dictionary. We shouldn’t pretend that the left-hand column, in law French, isn’t present. It is. So by definition, it’s a bilingual work: There are two languages. On this view, the right-hand column is simply a translation of the left. Considine even says that “the headwords were not English.” Citing the entry for estray as an example, Considine argues that Rastell was “certainly not claiming that estray is an English word: it is a law French word, on which he provides a commentary in French, before repeating the French headword with an English translation of his commentary.”

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t cite estray as an English word until 1594. Is that a lexicographic oversight, or instead a clear indication that it really wasn’t English until late in the century? This is a crucial point. Considine says that the right-hand column just repeats the “French headword with an English translation of his commentary.”

Second, Considine argues that Rastell didn’t so much define estray as explain “how an estray is dealt with by the law.” Long before the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia would emerge in the 19th and 20th centuries, Rastell began his entry on estray with a definition (“Estray is where any beast or cattel is in any lordship and none knows its owner”) and continues with 65 words explaining why and how “it shall be seised to the use of the King.” Does all the extra information disqualify Rastell’s work as a dictionary?

Your verdict

The dispute may seem like trivial arcana. But to some of us, it’s important both to the history of lexicography and to the history of lawyers’ literary contributions.

How would you vote? Assuming you’ve had a fair distillation of the competing views, who would you say produced the first English-language dictionary? Cawdrey or Rastell? Next time, I’ll report my own view on the matter, together with your results. Send your vote to me at [email protected].

This story was originally published in the April-May 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Dictionary Dispute: Was the first English-language dictionary penned by a legal lexicographer?”

Bryan A. Garner is the chief editor of Black's Law Dictionary and the author of many books, including the newly released fifth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.