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Word Storehouses

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The first word storehouses were on the walls of caves, tombs, and monuments of very ancient Black Africans. The world’s earliest books were the Interior African/Egyptian Mortuary or Coffin Texts, the Pyramid Texts (a collection of powerful sayings carved on the internal walls of pyramids), The Book of the Dead, and the Book of the Instructions of Ptahhotep (a work on the conduct of life).

However, for centuries thereafter, people lacked any authoritative reference works explaining what a word meant or how it was to be used in conversations.

In business and the humanities considerable confusion reigned because various groups used the same word to express different ideas; because the same idea was expressed in unrelated words; and because conquering tribes brought in their own words and meanings for the familiar ideas of the natives.

The earliest preserved dictionary is a Mesopotamian Akkadian word list of 600 B.C. Around this time the classical Greek philosophers were gathering knowledge into one place.

By analyzing speech patterns and language, they or their teachers, the Egyptians, established the roots of grammar and syntax. Their 4th century B.C. encyclopedia made it easier to expand and increase learning by giving a summary account of words in their present state.

Philetas (320 B.C.) of Cos, Greece, wrote a compilation of words, including those from Homer. After a lengthy 1st century wordbook by Pamphilus of Alexandria, Egypt, the Greeks became skilled compilers of dictionaries. A thousand years ago came the Amarakosha (“treasury of Amara”), which were crude arrangements of Sanskrit words according to subjects.

A pioneering work was the Etymologiarum, “the etymologies” of the 7th century. Monks of the Christian Middle Ages, assuming the task of reclaiming classical, and especially African learning, produced modern-like encyclopedias.

The first bilingual dictionary (English/French) was printed in 1480. In 1552, the first serious English dictionary was the “Abecedarium.” Comic dictionaries were off-shoots. Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755 was the model for those coming after.

The “Pasigraphie” of 1797, published in Paris, tried to classify language for universal understanding without translation. Noah Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English language” in 1820 bridged the gap between Johnson’s dictionary and the burgeoning American culture.

Dr. Roget published his “Thesaurus” in 1852. Then came the “Oxford English Dictionary,” published between 1884 and 1928, with the aim of tracing and defining “common words,” as opposed to scientific technical terms.

By so doing, it made a distinction between dictionaries and encyclopedias. It is the most authoritative source of facts on word origin and usage. Being scholarly splendid for European concepts, but not African concepts, it can be described as the single most valuable linguistics reference ever published.

In 1758 The Encyclopaedia Britannica introduced the systematic survey of all departments of knowledge.

Subsequently, there have been books on speciality dictionaries (e.g. for medical-legal words), word or phrase finders, thesauri, glossaries, compendia, word-origin, slang, Euphemism, cliches, proverbs, rhythms, mythology, specific academic subjects, novels, fairy tales, poetry, and in fact every subject known to mankind.

Today, various word storehouses available on computers are popular. Whereas an encyclopedia is any large or multi-volume reference work (complete with maps, illustrations, and diagrams), computers can make a library full of encyclopedias readily available.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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