Richardson’s dictionary (1836-7)

Charles Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language (1836-7), now little known and consulted, was the first general dictionary of English to offer readers a full conspectus of historical evidence. His work was thus clearly participatory in the shift towards historical scholarship that characterized the natural sciences as well as linguistic scholarship from the late 1800s onwards – a shift fundamentally important to the birth of the OED a couple of decades after Richardson’s dictionary appeared (see discussion at 19th-century historical lexicography). Paradoxically, however, Richardson himself subscribed to a theory of etymological meaning with little or no historical basis.

Richardson’s New Dictionary was particularly influential on the OED in two specific respects:

  • its foregrounding of the importance of quotations (see Replacing definitions)
  • its generous provision of quotations over a much wider chronological range than Johnson’s, from around 1300 through to Richardson’s own time (see Extended range)

These quotations made the New Dictionary immensely pleasurable to read. They also turned it into a work emblematic of English culture and tradition, as the OED was itself to become (see Treasures), a role contemplated with pleasure by Richardson himself. His Preface closes with a vision of his dictionary finding ‘a resting place upon the tables of an English Settler on the banks of La Plata’, relieving ‘the languor of military inaction at the Mess of Abednuggar’, and engaging ‘the acuteness of nearly a century of critics in the United States of North America’ (New Dictionary of English, vol 1: 61).

For more on Richardson see Aarsleff 1983: 249-52, who gives an account of the origin of this dictionary (Richardson took over the project from S. T. Coleridge) and explains its intellectual context, also Fowler 2004, Dolezal 2000, Zgusta 2006: 19-26, Reddick 2009. Adams 2018 discusses R. C. Trench‘s annotations of his copy of Richardson’s dictionary, while Adams 2019 reviews Richardson’s place in the history of English lexicography. An updated ODNB entry on Richardson, by John Considine, was published in 2020.1

Last updated on 29 July 2020


  1. [accessed 16 July 2020], subscription required.