A Dictionary of Love

As a Graduate Trainee in the Special Collections Department, I feel privileged to be granted access to the closed book stack. There are many weird and wonderful items behind these closed doors, unbeknownst to most of the Library’s visitors, yet I have had the opportunity to examine these treasures freely. Indeed, as I walk through the book stack everyday to get to my desk, it’s hard not to stop and examine all the interesting items that catch my eye! It was while working in the book stack that I came across a very small pocket book. The binding, admittedly, was not particularly eye-catching. I might have disregarded it without a second thought except my curiosity was piqued; there was no title or author printed on its spine. But once I had opened it and started to read, it was clear that the book was one of our quirkier items.


Frontispiece from 'A Dictionary of Love'

The little non-descript book is entitled ‘A Dictionary of Love’. Despite its title, the book is anything but romantic and takes an unsentimental look at the language employed by lovers, defining the terms ‘Absence’ through to ‘Zone’. It was first published in November, 1753, by Ralph Griffiths at the Dunciad in St. Paul’s Churchyard. For more than 200 years, its author remained anonymous but a chance inspection of Griffith’s personal papers eventually solved the mystery. A month after its publication, Griffiths personally reviewed the book in his ‘Monthly Review’. The review mostly contained quotes and referred to the creator only as “the ingenious author”. This was not unusual; contributors to ‘The Monthly Review’, as was the custom in 18th century periodicals, were entirely anonymous. Griffith’s own editorial copy, however, contained annotations which helped to identify the author. It was while working through these papers that Prof. Roger Lonsdale discovered that “the ingenious author” was actually “Mr Cleland”. English author John Cleland was an acquaintance and colleague of Griffiths and the two men also became cell mates – both were arrested over the erotic content contained in Cleland’s infamous ‘Fanny Hill’ although neither man was formally charged. After ‘Fanny Hill’, ‘A Dictionary of Love’ would go on to become one of Cleland’s most popular works. It was reprinted in several different versions spanning over 70 years, with the last version printed as late as 1825.

A Definition of 'Wish'

A Definition of 'Wish'

In 1777, another edition was published in London by Bew, Wilkie, Riley & Caville. This slightly abridged version inspired a series of reprints, including the 1795 edition that we hold in the Special Collections Department. In it, several notable changes took place, the most prominent being the exclusion of Cleland’s preface. In the original, convoluted preface, it is clear that the dictionary serves as a guidebook, calculated to decode the language of love. The “glossary” of love is not “so easily acquired as might be imagined”, cautions Cleland, “whenever faults are committed in Love… they will be found owing to a mis-interpretation of some term, that has not been reduced to its just value”. By reading the work, the young (especially “the fairer sex”) can learn to distinguish the “false coiners” from “the true lawful coin of the kingdom of Love”. The definition of ‘Beauty’ is also described in greater detail in the new edition, with 28 defining characteristics listed including “youth”, “a sweet breath” and an “agreeable voice”. Although obviously satirical (a style of writing extremely popular during the period), it is clear that some changes have been made to alter the work’s tone. Two new light-hearted and humorous entries (‘old maid’ and ‘ugly’) were also added – the language in stark contrast to the flowery speech used in the original preface. Overall, there are more omissions than additions made, again suggesting that the edition was purposely made less grave than its predecessor. The new preface in our 1795 edition also points out that the book is for fun: “they [young persons] will find this little book an amusement”. It has been noted, however, that there is no evidence to suggest that Cleland was in any way involved in the other editions, bar the original of 1753.

Title Page from 'A Dictionary of Love'

Title Page from 'A Dictionary of Love'

However, Cleland’s 1753 edition was not entirely originally, either. ‘A Dictionary of Love’ was loosely translated from J.F Dreux du Radier’s ‘Dictionnaire d’Amour’, which had been printed in The Hague 12 years previously. It has been calculated that approximately a quarter of the 220 definitions do not appear in the original; a further fifth of the original French definitions seem not to have been translated at all. Cleland notes in his original preface that definitions were translated “as near as could comport with the difference of language and idiom” but entries which were essentially Gallic or had no equivalent English word were omitted. Notable entries which were entirely original to Cleland include ‘Beau’, ‘Coxcomb’, ‘Fop’ and ‘Fribble’, which, interestingly, all address questions of masculinity and effeminacy. The term ‘rake’, essentially an English stereotype, is also Cleland’s own.

If you are interested in consulting this fascinating item, it can be requested with the shelf mark Sp Coll 2631 in the Special Collections Department of the Library. You can also view some of the more humorous definitions from this book on Flickr.

Lisa Ramsay, Graduate Trainee on placement in Special Collections.

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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