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An alvearie foure sundrie tongues (and happy birthday Bard)

Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Let’s celebrate by contemplating the alleged discovery of the playwright’s old dictionary. Perhaps we could use it to look up “big whoop.”

Apparently, a pair of New York-based antiquarian booksellers bought ye olde dictionary off eBay in 2008 and have since taken pains to authenticate it. Though Shakespeare’s name isn’t written anywhere within its pages (obviously, these were the days before our tradition of exes making off with one’s books when moving out), the booksellers make their case for its ownership in their new book, “Shakespeare’s Beehive.”

Why isn’t their book titled “Shakespeare’s Dictionary” you ask? I looked it up. The contested reference (which should never have been removed from the library in the first place) was originally published by 16th century scholar John Baret as “An alvearie or quadruple dictionarie, containing foure sundrie tongues: namelie, English, Latine, Greeke, and French; newlie enriched with varietie of wordes, phrases, proverbs, and divers lightsome observations of grammar.”

Beyond its spelling being up for grabs, the title was too long, so scholars truncated it to “Alvearie,” which is a synonym for beehive. Still confused? I think it’s a metaphor – Baret’s lexicological effort is the result of sending his student drones out to the collect “word nectar,” which they returned to the hive and converted into sweet dictionary honey. Baret, I’m assuming, was the queen bee. Also, there’s a beehive illustration on the title page. Moreover, I submit that this is where the term “spelling bee” comes from. And yes, I’m the first to connect those dots.

Six years ago, Daniel Wechsler and George Koppelman placed their fateful bid of $4300 on eBay for the “Alvearie” and scored it for $250 less. Their claims that the dictionary was once Shakespeare’s are predicated on thousands of handwritten annotations made throughout its pages and at least eight examples of the initials W and S randomly scrawled hither and yon.


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