Title page of the first Encyclopaedia Britannica

Anyone who loves reading knows the pleasure of casually looking up the odd word or fact in the dictionary or encyclopedia. There’s a certain gratification in learning that “agerasia” refers to “the non-appearance of the signs of age,” or that the word “self,” which originally meant “same,” only recently replaced “soul” as the most common noun for personhood in English, or that the tallest person ever recorded measured 8 feet 11.1 inches tall.

As Jack Lynch shows in You Could Look It Up, a history of fifty reference works from The Code of Hammurabi to Wikipedia, it’s equally entertaining to learn about the writers and editors who went to great lengths to collect and distill these facts—some greater than others.

Pliny the Elder had manuscripts read to him day and night—over dinner, in his bath, traveling in his sedan chair.

Pliny the Elder, for example, wrote his thirty-seven-volume Naturalis historia, which contained 2,495 entries on all of the natural objects known at the time, in just two years. He had manuscripts read to him day and night—over dinner, in his bath, traveling in his sedan chair—and claimed to have noted 20,000 “things of importance” pulled from 2,000 works. One modern scholar, Lynch notes, calls Pliny’s tally “a severe underestimate.” His work came to an unfortunate end when he died rushing towards an erupting Vesuvius in a pique of curiosity.

Other works were less dangerous to prepare but just as important. Theophrastus—Aristotle’s successor—was the first to categorize plants according to their morphology as opposed to human use. The first survey of English land and people, ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086, was The Book of Winchester, better known as the Domesday Book—a name “that comes from the assumption that what appeared there was as authoritative as what God had written in the book of judgment for the end of time.” The survey reveals, among other things, that there were only sixteen beekeepers in all of England and one female jester. The first dictionary of a modern European language was the Italian Memoriale della lingua, published by Giacomo Pergamini in 1602, but the most influential was the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, published ten years later, which provided quotations from great works of literature to exemplify usage. The Vocabolario was so successful that new editions continued to be published as late as 1923.

Most dictionaries and encyclopedias were created by members of academic societies over many years. The Académie Française began its Dictionnaire in 1635 and took fifty-nine years to complete it. The first Oxford English Dictionary (oed) took nearly seventy-five years to compile and edit. When the final volume was finally published in 1933, the dictionary contained 252,200 entries over thirteen volumes. Seventy-five years is a long time, but it’s no match for the Dutch dictionary Videnskabernes Selskabs Ordbog. The first volume was published in 1793. The final volume was not available until 1905.

An exception to this is Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Modern dictionaries employ the services of hundreds of editors. The American Heritage Dictionary lists well over a hundred staff on its masthead. According to the oed’s website, over 560 people have worked on the third iteration of that dictionary so far. Johnson worked alone except for the help of two assistants and finished his Dictionary in nine years—six years longer than he promised but thirty-one quicker than it had taken the forty members of the Académie Française to finish theirs.

Johnson’s is frequently said to be the first English dictionary, but it wasn’t. That honor belongs to Robert Cawdrey for his 1604 Table Alphabeticall, which provided short (sometimes just one word) definitions of 2,500 “difficult” words. By the time Johnson’s dictionary appeared in 1755, twenty English–English dictionaries had already been published. The problem with these, however, was that none of them was authoritative enough to gain wide use and acceptance. In 1693, John Dryden wrote that “we have yet no English Prosodia” nor “a tolerable Dictionary.” Nearly fifty years later, David Hume was still complaining that “We have no Dictionary of our Language, and scarce a tolerable Grammar.”

While Johnson was not particularly well known at the time, what distinguished his dictionary from previous attempts in English was his decision, following the Italian Academy of Crusca, to include examples of usage from the great literary texts—115,000 quotations in all, from Sir Philip Sidney to the King James Bible. This, along with his decision to describe rather than prescribe definitions, gave it its aura of authority.

But it was far from perfect. Johnson was criticized for several embarrassing errors. One of the most famous, Lynch notes, was his definition of “pastern,” which is part of a horse’s foot, as “a horse’s knee.” Still it far surpassed anything that had been published in English and set the standard for future dictionaries in English, from Webster’s Dictionary of American English to the oed.

The alphabet was not used to organize reference books until the late thirteenth century.

Lynch provides a great number of details on the editing and publication of various works, many of them helpfully separated from the main text in a small box, but one of the hidden pleasures of the volume—which is the same pleasure found in reference books themselves—is the odd fact or surprising anecdote.

We learn, for example, that the alphabet was not used to organize reference books until the late thirteenth century and still had to be explained to readers in the sixteenth century. We think of Shakespeare as the great wordsmith of the English language, but Thomas Browne may have coined as many as 589 new words in his quirky dictionary of common errors, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). The phrase “according to Hoyle” to mean “according to the rules” can be traced to Edmond Hoyle’s popular guide to the game of whist, first published in 1864.

Lynch isn’t only concerned with the past. The field of reference is quickly changing because of new technologies like Google and Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is frequently disparaged for its inaccuracies, Lynch cites a study carried about it by the science journal Nature that shows no significant differences in accuracy between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Not only is Wikipedia free, but it is also easier to use than codex encyclopedias and is continually updated—all of which are major advances in the field of reference.

Still, there are problems. Two troubling ones are that Wikipedia has “a strong presentist bias” and “favors the fashionable”: “Thomas Aquinas weighs in at just over 37,000 words on his life and major works; Michael Jackson warrants five times the space . . . the account of O. J. Simpson’s life and criminal trials occupies nearly 21,000 words, more than the entries for Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa combined.” Some knowledge is more important than others, but Wikipedia has no way of making such a distinction.

Whatever the future holds, You Could Look It Up is a reminder of the great variety of the world’s reference works and the sacrifices men and women have made to organize and disseminate human knowledge—both great and trivial.