Before Ladies and Gentlewomen Were Unskillful: Honorific Invocations of Learned Women in Early Modern Bilingual Dictionaries

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Lexicographical histories often remember Cawdrey’s (1604) Table Alphabeticall, addressed to ladies, gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons, as inaugurating a practice common among early modern English dictionaries; Bullokar, Cockeram, Blount, and Kersey are all understood to have similarly addressed their earliest dictionaries to uneducated female readers. This article questions such scholarly explanations as reliant upon homogenization of the diverse educations and capacities of early modern women as well as simplification of women’s various participations in early modern lexicography. Drawing on principles from feminist historiography, this article proposes an alternative approach to understanding women’s involvements and explores the material and rhetorical support offered by the four women invoked in the bilingual lexicons of Palsgrave, DuWés, and Florio. These skillful women actively inspired, encouraged, shaped, circulated, and otherwise sponsored English-language lexicographical projects that credited women as catalysts to dictionary making, celebrated women’s linguistic competencies, depended upon women’s linguistic reputations to exemplify dictionary content, and relied on women patrons to sponsor dictionary projects. This history of dictionaries that honored the women they named is both a necessary pair to considerations of dictionary titles that conflated women with ignorant audiences and a relevant tradition of dictionaries not just educating ignorant publics but commending linguistically savvy individuals. [End Page 93]
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-120
Number of pages28
JournalDictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
StatePublished - 2014


  • Lexicography


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