An Alternative Approach to Enlightenment Age Lexicography: The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce

Sven Tarp, Theo Bothma

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This article deals with lexicography from the Age of Enlightenment. The idea is not only to understand what was done but also to see if anything relevant to modern lexicography could be retrieved from this historical experience. With this objective, it will have a closer look at a specific eighteenth-century dictionary, viz. Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, published in four editions between 1751 and 1774. This work is selected because it is one of the most comprehensive and complex specialised dictionaries produced in that era. The article will first place the dictionary in its historical environment. It will then make a detailed study of its very rich content with a view to systematising the various types of lexicographical data included as well as the structures applied to assist the users when navigating through its highly complex pages. The analysis will show the great variety of items which Postlethwayt put into his dictionary in order to meet the multi-facetted needs of a broad group of users. In some aspects, the dictionary displays very advanced features which may even inspire modern lexicography, especially online lexicography. It seems that relevant lexicographical knowledge from the Age of Enlightenment was more or less forgotten due to the predominance of the erroneous idea that dictionaries are books of words and not of “things” as many eighteenth-century lexicographers described their products. The article therefore makes a call to recover the holistic Enlightenment Age vision of lexicography and re-integrate “dictionaries of things” into modern lexicographical theory and practice.
TidsskriftLexicographica - International Annual for Lexicography
Sider (fra-til)222-284
Antal sider63
StatusUdgivet - 2013


  • Lexicography
  • Specialised Lexicography
  • Historical lexicography
  • Function theory
  • Information science