Guide to 17th-century English
July 20, 2005 8:05 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a dictionary or guide to 17th-century English that would help my teenage daughter understand the words she comes across when reading Milton and the boys?
posted by GoatCactus to Writing & Language (10 answers total)
OED usually has all of that covered. It's a bit unweildy, though.
posted by jmgorman at 9:02 PM on July 20, 2005

You might want to see if the library has Norton Critical Edition of Milton and others. They do a good job with definitions for rare or archaic words and expressions and explanations of the historical context.
posted by Marky at 9:05 PM on July 20, 2005

This almost certainly wont help, but school versions of old classics (particularly Shakespeare) often have an extended vocabulary/glossary or explanatory notes attached.
posted by wilful at 9:30 PM on July 20, 2005

You may find this useful: Annotated Milton.
posted by tellurian at 9:55 PM on July 20, 2005 is posting Samuel Pepys' diary like a blog, one post per day. The site also has a bunch of background information about 17th-century Britain, including a glossary.
posted by Vidiot at 12:18 AM on July 21, 2005

Samuel Johnson's dictionary. An abridged version was recently published. The above suggestions are a bit more practical, though.

Chamber's dictionary is also good for any Anglophile.
posted by yesno at 5:54 AM on July 21, 2005

Any critical and/or annotated edition of the work(s) would probably be best. Word definitions and spellings from that era are so variable that it's tough to set them down in a definitive volume, so it's probably easiest to handle them on the fly.

Also, a separate dictionary tends to create another barrier between the reader and the material. When I was just starting out with 16th and 17th century literature, I'd read a line, get somewhat confused by a word, glance quickly at the footnote and think "Oh, yeah, that's what I suspected it meant." Very encouraging.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 7:25 AM on July 21, 2005

There is a book called A Milton Dictionary ed. E. Comte. New York, 1961. I don't think it is still in print, but as you can see from the link above it is pretty readily available used.

The real problem with Milton isn't his vocabulary, but his latinate syntax. May I suggest the heavy and well annotated Riverside Milton? It has glosses, but probably not enough of them.

Yesno, I just wanted to point out that there is no modern abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary currently available. There are, I think, two different "modern selections" that are completely worthless as dictionaries. They are simply selections of definitions for there scholarly or entertainment value.
posted by mokujin at 9:31 AM on July 21, 2005

Start with Webster's Collegiate, which has 99% of what your daughter will need. For more coverage, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) has all the words in the OED without the historical apparatus. It's still unabridged-dictionary size, though As an alternative to Webster's you might get the Concise OED.

For more general background, get What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England and the other books listed on Amazon at
posted by KRS at 11:18 AM on July 21, 2005

I'll recommend the Merritt Hughes edition of Milton, now back in print. For that period, you're usually better off with a good scholarly edition that glosses individual references and examples of usage -- especially with someone like Milton, whose approach to English grammar is unorthodox to say the least. (You'll sometimes find that for obscure usage in Paradise Lost, a dictionary will provide the relevant passage as a lone citation.)
posted by holgate at 11:47 AM on July 21, 2005

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