Now that classes at UBC are over, it’s a great time to stop by Rare Books and Special Collection to see our current exhibition The Road to the OED: A History of English-Language Dictionaries.
In this week’s student dictionary report from the course English 320: History of the English Language, we learn about Thomas Sheridan, an actor and playwright turned lexicographer who was also close friends with Jonathan Swift.
Sheridan, Thomas. A General Dictionary of the English Language. London : Printed for J. Dodsley … C. Dilly … and J. Wilkie, 1780. PE25 .R62 V. 288
Thomas Sheridan was an 18th-century actor, playwright, elocutionist, and educator who had a great deal of success in a number of fields. A tireless advocate for reform, Sheridan was able to raise the standard of the Dublin theatre scene, and make many strides in altering the contemporary opinion of a variety of issues related to elocution. Jonathan Swift, a close family friend, seems to have been an important inspiration for Sheridan’s interest in the written and spoken word. His 1780 dictionary, A General Dictionary of the English Language, one main object of which is to establish a plain and permanent standard of pronunciation, was a seminal development in the evolution toward a more comprehensive treatment of prescribed pronunciation.
Committed to a strong belief in the existence of proper universal pronunciation, Sheridan published one of the first serious attempts at bringing an informative and phonetically accurate representation of everyday words to the masses. In addition, he stirred debate in the academic community, inspired a number of critical reviews, and his dictionary eventually became an important source text for future pronunciation guides. Sheridan’s dictionary was popular in its day, leading to a release in at least 6 different editions in both Europe and North America.
In addition to the noteworthy phonetic guides present in each entry, Sheridan included a lengthy rhetorical grammar that serves as a pronunciation instruction manual, addresses contemporary pedagogy, and touches on regional and social varieties of language. Less a curatorial flaw than a curiosity and product of its time in the evolution of the language, Sheridan’s text did not include any words beginning with the letter x, instead noting that “X is a letter that, though found in Saxon words, begins no words in the English language”. Ultimately, Sheridan’s career in the theatre overshadowed his literary aspirations throughout his life, but the presence of phonetic pronunciations in contemporary dictionaries is a testament to the importance of his work as both an elocutionist and writer.
— Daniel Cooper (English 320: History of the English Language, 2012-2013)