Mikaela von Kursell


“For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God, for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.”
1 Corinthians 14:2

Legere, et non intelligere, neglegere est.
As good not read, as not to understand.
—Robert Cawdrey,
in the Introduction to the first English Dictionary,
“A Table Alphabeticall”1

By this fable (right honourable & worshipfull) strangers that blame our tongue of difficultie and uncertaintie may hereby plainly see, & better understand those things, which they have thought hard.

To the Reader

As my lyfe has proceedeth in the ordinary abecedarian fashion, then to profit by this fable, thou must learn the alphabet, the order of the Letters as they stand as:
(b) neere the beginning,
(n) about the middest,
(t) towards the end.

And I would begin with ‘A,’ paraphrased thusly: Abandon. Ablush. Aberation. Abortive. Absurd. Accident. Acquittal. Agglutinate. Agitate. Alien. Altercation. Altitude. Amaritude Ambition. Amplify. Anguish . Animate—

Ay (ever, at any time, forever).

But it is best to use plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillfull persons, and avoid folly with the plainest & best kind of speech, properly expressed in the plainest & best manner. No counterfeting the King’s English, no poudering the talk with over-sea language, no speaking in tones that cometh lately out of France, without stuttering, and without blushing.

I was born in 1538, in a town that lacked a name, in a time of little elementary education, and all that I know of my early self is ambiguous. I lacked proper university training, yet still was a schoolmaster in the grammar schools of Oakham and Rutland. This was fair work, but my heart was not into it, ‘twas an appendix (hanging, or belonging to another thing).

Hard English words, hard usual English words.

Bereft, I bleated, I blasphemed, I bewailed, and blanched like a buggeried brute sprung from calamitous canons of catharre (a flowing of humors from the head).  In catholic (general), I became a censor, corrector, a judge, or reformer of manners, centurian of ceruse. But by my charter (a grant confirmed by seale), I followed the words of Christ (anointed), finding claritude and clemency in the climate of congregation, the congruent consummation of contemplation and contradiction, my cosmography (description of the world) crisped, the crocodile of the critical (which giveth judgement), a beast crucified (and fastened to the cross), rude, undigested, a crypt (hidden or secret), the crystalline cubit of a curiositie (picked diligence, greater carefulness, then is seemly or necessarie). Not to be cynical, but I became a cypher (a circle of no value of it selfe, but serveth to make up the number and make other figures more valuable). Damnable.

To the Reader

Hard English words, hard usual English words.

In 1565, I was ordained a deacon. The decision cut away at my decline, felled it off, like a decoction (liquor) wherein things are sod for physickes of decorum. I dedicated  (and gave away forever) my deformed degeneracy, a deifying of delectation, deliberate in my taking of good counsel, a deluge (like a great flood or the overflowing of waters) in demerit, denouncing dependence on the deplorable, depluming the depose of the depressed, derided, derogated, the desert of desertion designed to determine diabolical diadems of diapason (the music of all parts). When dialogue is difficult, I digresseth. When dignity dilates, the dilemmas (those forked kind of arguments, on either side, entrapeth).  Dimensions (measurings).  Diminutions (lessenings). Dim-witted diocesans (that hath jurisdictions) sometimes disable disciples, who have discomfited (putting into flight) discord (here:  mere variance) disguised as a disloyalty. And such masters displant (to pull up by the rootes), trees planted of dissent (contraries opinions).  Divine lie: the dulcimer of duarchy (the equal raine of two princes together), driblets (small debts) dulcifie (sweeten) dulcor (sweetness) of a friendship that is durable (long lasting, or of long continuance).

To the Reader

Who needs speak poetrie & far-fetched colors of plain antiquity, chopping in with English Italianated?

In 1570, I advanced into priesthood. Still the echo of the ecclestical, belonging to the church not quite eden, (a pleasure or delight), but an edict (a commandment from authority), an edifice of emphasis (forcibly expressing) an empire enigmatical, enducing (moving) enimitie (hatred), enflaming (burning), enfranchising (making free), the entrals (inward parts) of all.  I was episcopal (bishoplike), and yet (bishopnot). Epilepsis (the falling sickness). Epitaph (the writing on a tomb or a grave). Epithet (a name of a title given to anything). My epiphanie: to epitomize equality, erect myself as the equivalent, once again establish (and confirm) my estimate (esteem) eternally, for I am no ethnic (heathen) etymologizing the evangel (gospel), but an evangelist evaporating  (breathing out) the eucharist, the eunuch, gelded, wanting stones everted (turned upside down) to make evident the plaine. Exhaltation, exasperate, (to whet on to make more angrie).
Yet not quite excommunicate.
Yet not quite excrement.
Yet not quite expungable.

To the Reader

Forgiveth me, for in waightie causes, grand words are thought most needful, that the greatness of the matter, may the rather appeare, in the vehemecie of their talk. These are hard English words. Hard usual English words. And here is a pause, the festival of flagrant flotes and floscles (flowrs), frontletting (attiring for the forehead), fructifying…

In 1571, I was a rector in Southern Luffenham. Garboile (hurly burly), guardian (a keeper or defender of) gargarise (washing the mouth or throat with) gentility, generosity, the geomancy of the germane, and gires, those grins or laughs that give or fetter glee. Hee-hee. Gnibling gratitude, the grease of guise (fashion, shape, custom). Halaluiah. Halaluiah. However: hailed as heretic.  Would not read certain state-approved homilies.  Kicked from the kloak by Richard Howland. Hosana. Hush, hush, husht, a man hyperbolical (beyond all credit, or likelihood of truth)—

Idiot! Iesus! Imbecilitie! Ingenious ingine of inquisition, the inscription inscrutable, an intermission from the jubileed-judaisme by holy jurisdiction. Laborinth, a place so full of windings and turnings, that a man cannot finde the way out of it.  Laborious, painfull, full of labor. Language (tongue). Language (speech).
Languish (wearing away with griefe).
Lassitude (see languish).
Lasso (a tying up of loose ends).

To the Reader

Three things should chiefly be observed in the choisest of words:

1) should be proper in the tongue wherein we speak (plaine for all men to perceive)

2) apt and meet most properly to set out the manner

3) words must be used to beautifie the sentence, as precious stones are set in a ring

In 1591, I losteth everything. Maffled, as if by magic, the magistrates mandated a march mechanicall, merceneries of menstruous metropolitains metaphoring (or putting over of a word from its proper and natural signification) my ministries. Misprission, a concealment of a man’s own knowledge, or perhaps, the knowledge of a man’s whereabouts. This is all worth mentioning.

To the Reader

Some men seek so far outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers’ language, so that if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell, or understand what they say. Some men seek so far as to have no mothers. Some men speak more clearly and plainely to their dead mothers, or the mothers they pretend not to know. Some mothers find their men so outlandish and so unknowable, they disinherit them.

Some men merely feel as if they have been disinherited.

In 1592, I was unemployed. Not. Never. Negative (denial). Neuter (synonyms end). Nice (slow, laysie). Nonage (a child’s time, underage). Nonresidence (unnecessary and willfull absence, of any one from his place or charge). O, oooo, oi, ow. Obdurate (harden, or to make more hard). Obliged (bound or beholden).  Occidental, belonging to the west. Under the ombrage of the Harringtons,  an opportunity to play orphant  and ostage orthography outrageous. Pacified, a parable of paradise and parasites (those flatterers, or soothing companions).  Parenthesis, a clause contained in another sentence. Patronage, defence, protection. Patronize, defend, offend. Pause (think, stay, rest). Punury, want or extreme need. Permission, sufferance. Paccaui, I have offended. Pauillon, a tent of pellicles, skins, perforations (holes), permanent. Perplexity. Persist in phantasies of physiognomies, physicks, phlebotomies, and phrases. Phrensie (madness). Piety (holiness). Pilot (a master of a ship). Ponderous pontificates. Postcript: a publican (a farmer, common man of the city), queached (or heaped) in querimonious heaps.

Quote, quotidian, quote, as in daily, as in it happeneth every day.

To the Reader

Doth any wise man think that wit resteth in strange words?
Do we not speak because we would have others to understand us?
Or is not the tongue given in this end so that we know what another man meaneth?
Or is not the tongue given in this end so we know not what another man means?

In 1600, I was a schoolmaster, once again. Extended sabboth (day of rest), and sacrifice, the sapient satarite almost satirical, scheduling a schismatike of science, scripture, scrutiny, like a secretarie sectioned to the servitude and shackled to simonie (when spiritual matters are bought and sold for money), smatterer  (somewhat learned, or one having but a little skill), snippering solitaire, the speck of spectacle, the sperm of strateagem, subaltern, subdued. Sublime: set on high. Submiss: lowly, humble, brought into subjection. Supreme sage on the stage, syncophant of the synods.  Tragedian.

To the Reader

Some men are to be admonished, that they never affect any strange ynckhorne termes, but labour to speak so as is commonly received, and so as the most ignorant will understand them. Some men are to be admonished for they use their speech, as most men do. Some men are to be admonished for they abuse their speech, as most men do not. Some men are to be admonished for they blow  their yncke hornes and order their wits, as fewest have done, in brilliant discordancy, ascending down gradually, from u, to vee, to double u, to exe, to wye, to the sole and solitary word in zee, (o, Zee! my zealotry, the upward descendent, speaking alphabetically, ay, ever, at any time, forever, I…)

To the Reader

In 1604, I wrote a dictionarie, that zodiack (a circle in the heavens, wherein be placed the Signes, and in which the Sun is moved).


and so all of the rest.


“At this sound, the multitude came together, and they were bewildered because each one was hearing him speak in their own language.”
Acts 2:6




Author’s Note: Cawdrey did not include dictionary words for the letters J, K, U, W, X, or Y.

[1] In her most excellent essay “Hard Words for the Ladies: The first English Dictionaries and the Question of Readership,” Sylvia Brown recalls that Cawdrey’s dictionary offered to teach “the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English words, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French. &c. with the interpretation thereof by plaine English words”; he wished to elucidate “hard words” so that they do not become “hindrances to the understanding of Scriptures and Sermons” (359). For his part, Raymond Siemens gently reminds us that Cawdrey is not merely a compiler of others’ information, rather his work “is somewhat of an amalgam of previously existing works […] concerned with producing a unified, systematic, and usable work” (3). His method of compilation involved “expansion and contraction of others’ definitions,” and a standardization of “a new definition form” (3).  Siemens adds, with a glow of by proxical self-congratulation that matches, perhaps, this author’s own, “Cawdrey’s sources are clearly reflected in his work, but, for the most part, Cawdrey has put his imprint upon them” (4).

Works Cited

Brown, Sylvia. “Hard Words for the Ladies: The First English Dictionaries and the Question of Readership.” Euralex Proceedings (1996): 355-363.  Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Cawdrey, Robert. A Table Alphabeticall. Gainesville: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, Renaissance Electronic Texts. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Mikaela von Kursell photo
Mikaela von Kursell recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Strangelet, theNewerYork, The Found Poetry Review (online), and The Explicator. The short story “A Fable Alphabetical: The Life and Times of Robert Cawdrey Mostly in His Own Words (“Gathered By Me but Often Augmented”)” was nominated for the 2014 AWP Intro Journals Project Award.