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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 133-148
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Women and the Godly Art of Rhetoric:
Robert Cawdrey's Puritan Dictionary
When giving the Romanes Lecture of 1900, James Murray, the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, noted a surprisingly gendered fact about the beginnings of his trade. 1 Murray remarked on the fact that the first English dictionaries had all been addressed to women. But he noticed that by 1660, "these references to the needs of women disappear." Whether, he writes, "this was owing to the fact that the less-knowing women had now come upsides with the more-knowing men, or that with the Restoration, female education went out of fashion, and women sank back again into elegant illiteracy, I leave to the historian to discover." 2
Since Murray, historians have disputed the myth of a "golden age" of female education in the century immediately before the Restoration. 3 But Murray's hypothesized connection between women and dictionaries is significant: if not for its explanatory value, then for alerting us to the endurance of this cultural association as well as its tendentiousness. Murray himself had an anxious interest in connections between female education and his own job of dictionary-making. Comparing the rise of dictionaries with the rise of the study of English--the new discipline to which he in a sense owed his editorship of the New English Dictionary--he contended that both were the result of advances in women's education: "but for the movement to let women share in [End Page 133] the advantages of a university education, it is doubtful whether the nineteenth century would have witnessed the establishment of a School of English Language and Literature at Oxford." 4 Murray was not alone in feminizing English. Especially at Oxford, English was seen as an inferior version of "Greats," suitable for women or feeble men. Worse for Murray, he never succeeded in obtaining a proper university post, even in this inferior, women's discipline, remaining, to his chagrin, an employee of Oxford University Press, continually frustrated by lack of support for his great history of the English language. 5 It is not surprising, then, that this doubly marginalized figure--not quite belonging to a not-quite discipline--noticed that the first English dictionaries were addressed to women, and even less surprising to note his palpable relief as he passes 1660, on to more "scientific" and masculine stages in the "Evolution of English Lexicography."
Murray is certainly correct about the first dictionaries' announcement of a female audience. The first book that can properly be called an English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall, declares on the title page of its first edition in 1604 that it has been "gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better understand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves." Although the second, somewhat expanded edition of 1609 does away with the "Ladies" and "Gentlewomen," offering itself more generally to "all unskilful persons," Cawdrey's immediate successors continue to address themselves to what Murray calls "the needs of women." 6 In 1616, John Bullokar, dedicating An English Expositor to the Viscountess Montague, hopes that her patronage will cause it to be "gracefully admitted among greatest Ladies and studious Gentlewomen, to whose reading (I am made beleeve) it will not proove altogether ungratefull." 7 In 1623, Henry Cockeram puts "Ladies and Gentlewomen" at the head of his list of those who should use his English Dictionarie. 8 And, in 1656, just before Murray's Restoration cut-off point, Thomas Blount addresses his Glossographia to both "the more-knowing Women, and less-knowing Men." 9 (Murray here purports to hear "an echo in reference to an English School in this University." 10 )
Juliet Fleming has argued--as I would also like to argue--that Murray's sixty...