Right and Wrong Ways of Knowing

The Dictionary Craze and Conflicts of Learning in Eighteenth-Century Europe


  • Linn Holmberg University of Stockholm




dictionaries, learning, book market


This article explores how the eighteenth-century ‘dictionary craze’ – the explosive proliferation of alphabetically organized reference works – can be understood as part of a wider conflict of learning. Drawing on a wide mix of sources, I show that dictionaries, more than any other factual genre of the time, challenged established conventions about what constituted right and wrong ways of reading, learning, and ultimately knowing, and that this was a crucial reason for both the controversy and success of the genre.

After an overview of early modern norms of learning, the article examines how eighteenth-century disagreements about factual dictionaries challenged, reproduced, and reconfigured older views. By encouraging readers to follow their own curiosity, read in whatever order they liked, form their own opinions, remember temporarily, forget, and return when needed, dictionaries deviated from established ideals of disciplined study and ‘digestive’ reading, which held that ‘true’ knowledge was deeply incorporated in the individual. The dictionary’s claim to be a ‘shortcut’ to learning also fueled discussions about the very meaning of ‘knowing’, and how much the road to learning could be shortened without missing the goal.


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