Drudges Two icon Drudges Two

"As to my Sporting Remmis-cences, as you are pleasd to say, I have lookd them out in the dixenary, and kno verry well what it is. I beg leaf to Say, I have forgot all my recolections, and can not bring to Mind any of my old Rememberances."1

Is crongle a valid word? If the plural of goose is geese then is the plural of moose meese? Is ghoti an alternative spelling of fish?2 No, no and no. How do we know? We, like the Old Sportsman above, consult a dictionary.

Without dictionaries and words lists (which are derived from or authenticated by dictionaries) word games could not be played. Some authority is needed to determine which are and are not valid words and how they are spelled. Although players may disagree with a list (they may believe that some words should be included or excluded), they must agree to use the list in order to play a game. Otherwise, disputes might arise during each player's turn.

Most word games use one or more lists of acceptable words, although some simply designate a particular dictionary as the authority. The words included in the lists are based on some criteria. They are language-specific: English, French, German and so on. Proper nouns (words normally capitalized), hyphenated words and contractions are usually excluded. Often only words shorter than a maximum length are included. The words in the lists are chosen from or verified with dictionaries.

Cotton word games provide nine word lists of various sizes: Middle English, Shakespeare, Shakespeare with contractions, General, General with contractions, American, American with contractions, British, British with contractions.


citation of 'dictionary' from Johnson's dictionary

Today, we expect a general dictionary to be a sizeable but not exhaustive, alphabetical list of words.3 The entry for each word will have one or more definitions for each part of speech, a pronunciation guide, and a brief etymology. It may also include synonyms, usage notes, (dated) example phrases or sentences, cross-references and more. But the present form of the dictionary is a relatively new development.

Many early "dictionaries" (dating back more than 1000 years) were just lists of words. Some were bilingual. Others included definitions of "hard" or "useful" words. Many were poorly researched. Not all were alphabetized.4 Etymologies, if included, were only sometimes accurate and often fanciful. Spelling was not standardized. Few were meant for the general public. Rarely did they give a word's historical context -- its first recorded use and examples of changes in meaning (if any) over time.

The modern English dictionary is the result of several interacting factors. The development of the printing press made the production (not compilation) of printed material less expensive. This led to a greater demand for cheaper books, pamphlets and newspapers as did a rise in literacy which was in part the result of the greater availability of inexpensive printed materials and increased educational opportunities which were in part due to the demand of the newly literate for more and better education. All of this created a need for dictionaries.

For readers they provided definitions: from Samuel Johnson's dictionary they could learn the difference between literally and virtually; they could find the definition of depurate (but not unique). Writers would find that the "correct" spelling is child not childe, that the plural is children not childs and that the past tense of go is went not goed. As dictionaries became more widely available and used they set de facto standards.

Although lexicography5 is a very interesting subject, we'll focus on just two influential, English-language dictionaries compiled by Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster.6

Samuel Johnson

portrait of Johnson

Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was one of the most influential English-language dictionaries; for many years it was THE dictionary.7

It was notable for both its breadth and depth. The first edition contained over 42,000 words listed alphabetically -- including common, everyday words. Each was given one or more definitions which were often illustrated with quotations (over 100,000). He sometimes included notes on usage (being prescriptive rather than descriptive).8 In the front matter he included "A History of the Language" and "An English Grammar."

citation of 'child' from Johnson's dictionary

The entry for child shows that it is a singular noun and the plural is children. It comes from the Saxon (Old English) word cild. It has several definitions. The first ("An infant...) is illustrated with a quotation. To the fifth definition ("A girl child.") Johnson adds that it is "Not in use." The seventh definition is an idiomatic phrase: "To be with child. To be pregnant."

The entry is typical and looks quite modern: most include parts of speech, inflected forms, etymologies, one or more definitions, illustrative examples, and usage notes. Each polysyllabic word has an accent mark showing the major stress when spoken (DICHO'TOMY). He does not show complete syllabication nor minor accents.

Johnson's etymologies were often no more than educated guesses. In "An English Grammar" Johnson discusses the pronunciation of the letters, letter combinations and exceptions, but he provided little guidance for pronunciation at each word. Sometimes it is more or less helpful: gaol -- "It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal." But too often it is of no help at all: Johnson says that escritoir "is pronounced scritore," but scritore is not in his dictionary. About gauge Johnson writes "It is pronounced, and often written, gage." We might ask, is the a long; is the e silent; which g is hard and which soft, if either? Johnson was conservative and retained many traditional spellings.

Some entries seem peculiar, but they simply reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the time and the author. For example, Johnson defines lion as "the fiercest and most magnanimous of fourfooted beasts" and magnanimous as "great of mind; elevated in sentiment; brave." The examples refer to King Richard's "lion-like courage" and "lion hearted Richard"; the examples for lioness ("A she lion") characterize it as greedy and adulterous.

Occasionally, Johnson indulged in humor: citation of 'oats' from Johnson's dictionary

Some people admired Johnson's dictionary and some did not. There is a famous scene in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair in which Becky Sharp throws Johnson's "Dixonary" out of a window.

Despite its weaknesses, Johnson's Dictionary was the best dictionary of its time and for long after. It was more trustworthy than its predecessors; it was broader (more words); and it was more thorough (more definitions per word). Although, its price was very high, which made it unavailable to the general public, its influence was immense; it set the standard for subsequent lexicographers.

Noah Webster

portrait of Webster
Noah Webster was a reformer: among other things, he wanted to improve spelling and grammar and the curriculum, methods and materials of schools. He believed that the written and spoken language of America was sufficiently different from that of England as to warrant "a Dictionary suited to the people of the United States." In 1828 he published An American Dictionary of the English Language.9 It was substantially larger (70,000 words) than Johnson's (42,000). It included new words, such as hommony and skunk, new American definitions, for words like congress, cracker and gambrel and many notes indicating when a word was not used in America (grip in the sense of "a ditch"). He also changed the spelling of many words. And he included illustrative examples from American writers such as John Adams, James Madison and Washington Irving.

citation of 'child
The entries in Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language are similar to those in Johnson's dictionary. The entry for child shows that it is a singular noun and the plural is children. The word is derived from the Saxon (Old English) word cild; Webster also cites Danish kuld. There are several definitions with illustrative quotations. Like Johnson he notes the misapplication of the word to a female child ("The application of child to a female in opposition to a male, as in Shakspeare, is not legitimate."). And he defines the idiomatic phrase "to be with child." The entry is typical and looks quite modern.

citation of 'kee' from Webster's dictionarycitation of 'lick' from Webster's dictionary

He frequently pointed out the differences between British and American English.

Webster provided more pronunciation guidance than Johnson. In the front matter there is an extensive discussion of spelling and pronunciation, including a two-page "Directions for the Pronunciations of Words" with twenty-five rules. Each polysyllabic word has an accent mark showing the major stress when spoken (DICHO'TOMY). He does not show complete syllabication nor minor accents.

In the word entries he uses special characters to distinguish some sounds.

citation of 'diastaltic' from Webster's dictionary

For example, in diastaltic the i is long and the c is pronounced like k

citation of 'dutiful' from Webster's dictionary

and in dutiful the second u is pronounced as in full and pull.

Webster included many fewer illustrative examples. He says "[w]ho needs extracts from Shakespeare, Bacon, South and Dryden, to prove hammer to be a legitimate English word, and to signify an instrument for driving nails?" Sometimes he quotes Johnson's examples in whole or part or simply refers to "Johnson" or "Dryden" apparently assuming readers could look up the word to find the examples in Johnson's Dictionary if they wanted. He also quotes other authors and writes his own examples.

Webster excluded fewer words form his dictionary, writing that "...the lexicographer is not answerable for the bad use of the privilege of coining new words. It seems to be his duty to insert and explain all words which are used by respectable writers or speakers, whether the words are destined to be received into general and permanent use or not." However, it was not until the Oxford English Dictionary that an attempt was made to include every English word.

Webster's dictionary also reflected the attitudes and prejudices of the time. His definition of lion is much more informative than Johnson's: "A quadruped of the genus Felis, very strong, fierce and rapacious. The largest lions are eight or nine feet in length. The male has a thick head, beset with long bushy hair of a yellowish color. The lion is a native of Africa and the warm climates of Asia." But then he adds, "His aspect is noble, his gait stately, and his roar tremendous." Unlike Johnson he does not disparage the lioness which he defines simply as "the female of the lion kind" with no qualifications.

His etymologies are much more reliable than Johnson's. It's reported that he learned more than twenty languages in order to conduct his research. Webster's dictionary sold well and established a new higher standard of dictionary making.


Most people use dictionaries for three reasons: to look up the meaning of a word; to determine how to spell a word; and to learn how to pronounce a word. When playing word games the second is most important, although you should know the meaning of every word you play.

Today, we assume that there is a correct way to spell most words in most languages although sometimes two spellings for a word persist (gray/grey, center/centre). But it was not always so. Standardized spelling is the result of two things. First, some countries established institutions (for example, L'Académie française and Real Academia Española) for maintaining language standards -- for example, determining which words are acceptable and the correct spelling of each word. Second, in other countries (England and the United States for example), dictionaries set the standards. The process of spelling standardization was in part driven by compulsory education. Educators turned to dictionaries as the spelling authority. This is especially evident in the United States where Noah Webster's spelling reforms, incorporated in his dictionaries and spelling books, became the national standard.

Although Samuel Johnson recognized that English spelling was inconsistent, he was no advocate of reform. In the Preface he writes: "...I have been often obliged to sacrifice uniformity to custom; thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, convey and inveigh, deceit and receipt, fancy and phantom...." From multiple spellings of a word he selected the one that seemed most correct based on his etymological knowledge (which was not extensive). Johnson did not have a direct influence on spelling as Webster did with his "spellers"; however, because of the authority of his dictionary he had an indirect influence; to a large extent Johnson's became the accepted spellings.

Noah Webster was dissatisfied with American education. Some things, such as overcrowding and underpaid staff, he could not do much about, but he could influence the curriculum. To this end he wrote a speller, a grammar and a reader.10

Most influential was his Spelling Book which was often called the "Blue-Backed Speller" because of its blue cover. Unlike The New England Primer, Webster's Spelling Book was entirely secular and not based on rote memorization. In it (simplified) rules of spelling and pronunciation were presented progressively which allowed children to advance by age, starting with the alphabet and moving on to simple words, complex words and then finally sentences.

As it went through many editions he changed the spellings of many words to reflect American usage. These were incorporated into his 1828 dictionary: for example, music for musick, center for centre and color for colour.

citation of 'woman' from Webster's dictionary

citation of 'tongue' from Webster's dictionary

In the dictionary he also proposed alternative spellings, but he was not as successful with these.

The "Speller" sold millions of copies. It was the dominant textbook until after William McGuffey's Eclectic Readers appeared (1836). It was the major influence in the standardization of American spelling.

Computers, Dictionaries, Spell-Checkers and Word Games

Electronic technology has made it easier and cheaper to create, distribute and use dictionaries. Computers make it easier to store information and to edit texts. No longer do dictionaries have to be printed as books: they can be distributed via CDs, DVDs and the Internet. They can be updated easily and made available quickly. We can use an electronic dictionary as a stand-alone computer program or access one or several via the Internet. They are easily searched and cross-references are one-click away. Many have the ability to pronounce words audibly. On-line dictionaries are accessible from everywhere at all times. What was once expensive and of limited availability has become cheap (or free) and ubiquitous; we even find dictionaries on ebook readers and smart phones. For many purposes we don't even need a full dictionary; almost every word processing and email program has a built-in spell-checker.11

Sears and Roebuck 1912 ad for Webster's dictionaries

Unfortunately, electronic dictionaries are more expensive than their printed versions when you take into account the cost of the device (computer, ebook reader, smart phone) and (maybe) the Internet connection that are necessary to use them. It's true that computers are used for many things, that one wouldn't buy a computer just to check spellings and look up definitions. And it's true that there are public places that provide free access to computers and the Internet. But if you are poor -- a term that describes much of the population of the earth -- you may not be able to benefit from the convenience and features of electronic spell-checkers. This is not to diminish their importance, but to put them in perspective.

However, if you are playing a Cotton word game, then you have access to a computer and, therefore, some sort of electronic dictionary. The more words you know the better a word-game player you can be (ignoring strategy and the luck of the draw). And to "know" a word is to "know" its meaning, not just recognize that it is a "real" word. There is no excuse for not knowing the definitions of the words you play. In fact, you should not be allowed to place a word on the board unless you can briefly define it. For more on this see Know the Words You Play.


Johnson humorously defines lexicographer as "a harmless drudge":12

citation of 'lexicographer' from Johnson's dictionary

And in his "Preface" he characterizes the lexicographer as a "humble drudge," one of the "unhappy mortals" who "toil at the lower employments of life" -- one who "can only hope to escape reproach," although "every other author may aspire to praise."

Johnson's definition of lexicographer is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. Lexicography is more than drudgery; it's an interesting, challenging and useful profession. Johnson knew his work was important and necessary. The English language, he says, "has itself been hitherto neglected; suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance; resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion; and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation." He found "our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules"; there was no "acknowledged authority" to consult ("Preface"). In his dictionary Johnson tried to provide pronunciation guidance, informed etymologies, accurate definitions and examples of good usage. He also made an attempt to regularize spelling.

Webster also believed that a new dictionary was necessary: "I am," he says, "convinced the dictionaries and grammars which have been used in our seminaries of learning, for the last forty or fifty years, are so incorrect and imperfect, that they have introduced or sanctioned more errors than they have amended" ("Advertisement").13 He sought "to ascertain the true principles of the language, in its orthography and structure; to purify it from some palpable errors, and reduce the number of its anomalies, thus giving it more regularity and consistency in its forms, both of words and sentences; and in this manner, to furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue" ("Preface").

Neither Johnson nor Webster was in a position of power from which he could dictate, but the quality of their work established them as authorities and this gave them indirect power to set standards, to influence usage. This is especially true of Webster because he also wrote spellers and grammars which were adopted by schools and influenced generations of students.

Johnson and Webster drudged for decades compiling their dictionaries. They had their detractors and competitors but their influence, although not direct, is indisputable.

Drudges Two

horizontal game board

Depending upon the Game Mode you choose

the board is divided into two parts by a row of barriers

horizontally in Row 8 (left)

or vertically in Column H (below).
vertical game board

Each side is populated with 49 letters randomly chosen from the pool of 98 (no blanks).

All of your letters lie on one side of the board and you must move them to the other side by hooking to letters on that side to form words. You receive one point for each letter moved from one side to the other.

Which side is the other side?

Einstein's Relative

Albert Einstein was walking along a stream one day lost in thought when he heard a voice call to him from across the water.


Looking up he saw his young niece who seem quite agitated.

"Oh, Uncle," she said. "Please tell me how get to the other side."

Einstein looked upstream; he looked downstream; he thought for a moment. Then he looked at her and said, "My dear, you are on the other side."

See also

Quick Intro to Drudges Two

Humor in Dictionaries

Absey Zed and ABC-Books

Roget's Tree and Thesauruses

About Cotton Word Games' Word Lists


1Thomas Hood, "Letter from an Old Sportsman" The Comic Annual, 2nd edition (London, Charles Tilt, 1832), 98.

2Ghoti is not an alternative spelling of fish but it can be pronounced as fish if

The creator of this word is unknown. G. B. Shaw, who advocated spelling reform, is often cited as the author, but it does not appear in his writings. Ghoti is not pronounced as fish because, for example, in English gh is never sounded as f at the beginning of a word (for example, ghastly, ghetto, ghost).

3There are many specialized dictionaries of biography, etymology, music, rhyme, pronunciation, names, slang, and quotations and other types, such as Ambrose Bierce's sardonic The Devil's Dictionary, Jeff Foxworthy's humorous Redneck Dictionary and the entertaining Hacker's Dictionary.

4Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604) is often cited as the first English alphabetical dictionary.

5Theoretical lexicography (also called metalexicography) is the synchronic and diachronic study of the dictionary -- its history, structure, typology, and so on. Practical lexicography is the craft of creating dictionaries. Both the study of and the creation of dictionaries are on-going processes. New words are created or incorporated from other languages, meanings change, words cease to be used, new media are developed, and so on. Today lexicography is a professional field but until recently dictionary work was done by educated amateur males (of course).

6The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attempts to include every English word ever recorded (over half a million) and to document its history with quotations, showing when it entered the language and how and when its meanings have changed. Its twelve volumes were published between 1884 and 1928 and it continues to be updated. James Murray was its first editor. Thousands of unpaid contributors submitted citations which were stored on slips of paper in cubbyholes. More than 10,000 citations were submitted by William Chester Minor, an convicted murder confined to an institution for the criminally insane. Although the OED was a landmark in lexicography, it did not have the general influence of Johnson's and Webster's dictionaries primarily because the spellings and meanings of most words had been established by the time of its publication. For more information see K. M. Elisabeth Murray's OED, Caught in the Web of Words (Oxford and Yale Univ. Presses, 1977) and Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins, 1998).

7 Many English dictionaries were published after Johnson's. Of note are the dictionaries published by William and Robert Chambers (the first in 1872). They were more inclusive than many other dictionaries (including more dialect and unusual words) and known for their sometimes whimsical definitions. For a time they published the official word-game dictionaries in Britain.

8A prescriptive dictionary would say that only the words in this dictionary are acceptable, this is how they should be spelled and this is what they should mean. Period. A descriptive dictionary would say here are all the words (that will fit in a particular format), these are the ways they are spelled and these are the meanings they can have. There is no absolute distinction between a prescriptive and descriptive general-purpose dictionary; most fall somewhere between the two extremes. Dictionaries reflect the time and place of their creation. Some words may be excluded for various reasons. Words may be tagged as vulgar, slang, illiterate, and so on. There may be notes indicating the appropriateness of using a word in various contexts. With this in mind we may say that Johnson's and Webster's dictionaries are prescriptive and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Webster's Third International (W3) are descriptive.

9excerpt from Webster's first dictionaryWebster's first dictionary (Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806) was an alphabetical list of about 37,000 words giving for each its part of speech, a short definition and "the PRONUNCIATION marked by an Accent or other suitable Directions" (For example, "Dichot'omous, [ch as k]"). Each polysyllabic word has an accent mark showing the major stress when spoken. Upon his death Webster's copyright and the name "Webster" were purchased by George and Charles Merriam and there followed many "Webster" and "Merriam-Webster" dictionaries.

10A Grammatical Institute of the English Language: speller (1783), grammar (1784), reader (1785).

11Inattentive reliance on spell-checkers can result in documents in which every word is spelled correctly whether it is the right word or not: "Deer Sire: Enclosed you'll will find too copies off ...." The pre-computer equivalent of the spell-checker was called "mom."

12Johnson defines drudge as "One employed in mean labour; a slave; one doomed to servile occupation" and drudgery as "Mean labour; ignoble toil; dishonourable work; servile occupation." Webster's definitions are similar to Johnson's: a drudge is "One who works hard, or labors with toil and fatigue; one who labors hard in servile employments; a slave," and drudgery is "Hard labor; toilsome work; ignoble toil; hard work in servile occupations." However, without humor he defines a lexicographer as simply the "author of a lexicon or dictionary."

13Webster also felt that "an American Dictionary of the English Language was necessary "for, although the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language. ... But the principal differences between the people of this country and of all others, arise from different forms of government, different laws, institutions and customs." Some English words "can be known [to Americans] only as obsolete or as foreign words." Further, "the institutions in this country which are new and peculiar, give rise to new terms or to new applications of old terms, unknown to the people of England" ("Preface").