European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

10 February 2014

The history of Spain in 40,000 lives

Spain has eight academies, founded in the 18th century on the French model.

The Academy of the Spanish Language, Real Academia Española (RAE), has a good record of publication. Its first dictionary, the Diccionario de Autoridades, so called because it provided citations from approved authors for every entry, came out in 1726 (BL shelfmark 1505/273.). The first Academy grammar, Gramática de la Lengua Castellana (236.d.32), came out in 1771.

The RAE has not wanted for detractors.  The Dictionary was mocked for its definition of ‘dog’ as ‘animal the male of which which raises its hind leg to urinate’. The entry for the passive in the Grammar explains ‘the passive voice is little used in Spanish’.

The Diccionario Histórico de la Lengua Española (Historical Dictionary of Spanish) launched in 1933 and  stalled in 1936 having  reached from A to Ce  (LEX.83). It has since been revived in electronic form.

The Spanish Academy of History, Real Academia de la Historia, also has a history of tribulations in publishing.  Palencia’s history of the reign of Isabella, the Gesta Hispaniensia,  was written 1450-92;  publication was mooted by the Academy in 1835, but it was issued in an authoritative edition only in 1998-99 (ZA.9.a.9553) and at the time of writing is incomplete.

The Catalans produced an excellent Biographical Dictionary (Diccionari biogràfic) in four volumes in 1966-70 (HLR 920.046). But the Spanish Biographical Dictionary, Diccionario biográfico español, first mooted when the Academy was founded in 1735, only finally began to appear in 2009.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Press coverage paid lip service to the huge scale of the project (nearly 40,000 lives) and focused more heavily on the politics. Many of the contributors were in their 70s; many went back to the days of the Franco regime and were proud of it. The life of Franco was by his friend Prof. Luis Suárez Fernández. When challenged as to why he didn’t call Franco a dictator, he replied: ‘Franco never dictated anything’.

There were calls for the entire Dictionary to be pulped, or for corrections to be made in any future electronic edition (as yet it’s paper only). It’s now been agreed that revisions of some of the most contentious entries will be issued.

The complete Dictionary is now on the open shelves in the Humanities 1 Reading Room (HLR 920.046) and researchers can make up their own minds. Currently shelved on the far wall as you enter the Reading Room, its 50 volumes – bound in sky blue – beckon to readers as soon as they pass the security checks.

The volumes of the Diccionario Biográfico Español

Diccionario biográfico español (Madrid, 2009- )

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Raúl Prieto, ¡Vuelve la real madre Academia! Crítica científica, aunque irrespetuosa y cachonda, del Diccionario de la lengua española, edición XX, 1984, de la Real Academia Española.  (México, 1985).  YA.1989.a.15497

E. Jiménez Ríos, La crítica lexicográfica y el ‘Diccionario de la Real Academia Española’: obras y autores contra el Diccionario (La Coruña, 2013)

‘El Diccionario Biográfico Español, revisado una vez que se termine’, El País, 12.3.2013 (


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