The feat of the Real Academia Española’s first dictionary (part 2)

The dictionary lacked a general method and workflows were divided among the authors by combinations of letters. They took for granted that every academic was equally qualified, worked at the same speed, and was following the same criteria as the rest of the team – criteria which, incidentally, were not precisely established from the start. For instance, not all authors were using the same edition of a given work to find the quotes from authorities, so knowing the folio or page number is not particularly useful. The original intentions were too ambitious and some cuts in the plan were required. There was no room for adding the vocabulary of the arts and sciences. This task was postponed, with plans for an eventual separate dictionary dedicated to that vocabulary; a project never undertaken.

The academy was born as a working institution, not as a way to give honorary recognition to outstanding authors. None of the contributors to the dictionary were well known authors, but rather cultivated men, some noble and some religious. Despite the compromise reached, the speed in completing the work varied with each individual – some were very committed and efficient, but not all. In a few cases the lack of work completed at the right time postponed the whole project, risking the publication of the volume in the process. In these cases, another academic had to carry out the work assigned to their predecessor, often starting from scratch. The first volume took thirteen years to complete; obviously this was not the original plan.

The dictionary is divided as follows: v. 1. A-B (1726), v. 2. C (1729), v. 3. D-F (1732), v. 4. G-N (1734), v. 5. O-R (1737), v. 6. S-Z (1739). It contains in total around 42,500 words.

A second revised and enlarged edition was planned by the academics, but only the first volume was ever released (1770). The RAE was busy preparing its first orthography  (published in 1741) and grammar (1771), so the project was abandoned. An important decision was made that affected all future dictionaries: from then onwards the RAE dictionary would be reduced to a single volume to make it easier to use. As a result, the citations were removed. As mentioned before, the idea of a separate dictionary dedicated to the vocabulary of the arts and sciences was consigned to oblivion. Interestingly however, a new dictionary covering that vocabulary as well, was accomplished later by a Jesuit priest working on his own, Esteban de Terreros; his Diccionario castellano con las voces de ciencias y artes… (1786-93, including French, Latin and Italian equivalents) was the next milestone in Spanish lexicography.

The Diccionario de autoridades surpassed considerably both in quality and quantity its predecessor, Covarrubias’ Tesoro and had a great influence on later Spanish dictionaries. In Álvarez de Miranda’s opinion, Autoridades was the best dictionary of the mid 18th century, representing a very advanced lexicographical work for its time.

Manuel del Campo


All the Spanish rare books cited in these two posts have a digital copy in the Hispanic Digital Library.

Further reading

Álvarez de Miranda, Pedro. Los diccionarios del español moderno. Gijón: TREA, 2011, p. 17-54. C212.c.8527

Blecua, José Manuel. Principios del Diccionario de autoridades: discurso leído el día 25 de junio de 2006 en su recepción pública [en la Real Academia Española]. Madrid: RAE, 2006. Available online.

García de la Concha, Víctor. La Real Academia Española: vida e historia. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 2014. C210.c.4223

Lázaro Carreter, Fernando. Crónica del Diccionario de autoridades (1713-1740): discurso leído el día 11 de junio de 1972 en el acto de su recepción pública en la Real Academia Española. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2014. C205.d.1085

Moreno Fernández, Francisco. La maravillosa historia del español. Madrid: Instituto Cervantes, 2015. 773.c.201.145

RAE. Diccionario de autoridades. Madrid, 1726-1739. Facsimile ed. (R785.S172); online database version.

RAE. Nuevo tesoro lexicográfico de la lengua española [electronic resource]. Madrid: RAE, 2001. AV.26.20

Zamora Vicente, Alonso. La Real Academia Española. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1999. S760.b.99.19

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s