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date: 15 October 2019

Coles, Elishafree

(c. 1640–1680)
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Coles, Elisha (c. 1640–1680), lexicographer and stenographer, the son of John Coles (1623/4–1678), schoolmaster of Wolverhampton grammar school, and his wife, Joyce, was probably born about 1640 in Northamptonshire. He was the nephew of Elisha Coles the Calvinist, and has been often confused with his uncle's son, also Elisha Coles [see under Coles, Elisha]. A schoolmaster like his father, Coles evidently possessed a playful sense of humour: 'I was born and bred [for a dozen years] in the very heart of England, I spent almost as many in her very eye, and after that as many more in [or about] the very head of the Kingdom' (The Compleat English Schoolmaster, 103). (England's 'very eye' alludes to Oxford, and her 'very head' to London.)

Coles entered Magdalen College, Oxford, towards the end of 1658, matriculated on 26 March 1659, and remained a chorister until 1661 when he left without taking a degree. Shortly afterwards, he set up as a schoolmaster in London (he was at Russell Street, near Covent Garden, by 1674), teaching Latin to English youths, and English to foreigners. Coles considered himself a perennial pupil, for 'Learning and Teaching are so nearly Related, that we cannot possibly suppose the one without the other' (Syncrisis, 1675, preface). More than a decade passed before he submitted his efforts to the public: then from 1674 to 1677 works on shorthand, language instruction, and lexicography rolled regularly from the London presses.

In The Newest, Plainest and the Shortest Short-Hand (1674), a copy of which was in the library of Samuel Pepys, Coles presented the first historical survey of English shorthand, citing thirty shorthand authors and comparing fourteen alphabets. His own alphabet was apparently based on that of Thomas Shelton's second system (Zeiglographia, 1650). Believing monosyllables to be the great stumbling block in English shorthand, Coles advanced the innovative notion of positioning characters on, above, and below a line for great versatility, a method not adopted until 1692 in Abraham Nicholas's Thoographia. Coles's book was 'deservedly well received' (Kippis, 1.538).

Also published in 1674 was The Compleat English Schoolmaster, a spelling-book that offers valuable information about seventeenth-century pronunciation and orthographic conventions. In 1675 two Latin textbooks appeared: Nolens volens, or, You shall make Latin whether you will or no; and Syncrisis, a precursor of the Loeb Classical Library series in its juxtaposition of Latin text and facing English translation. The popularity of Nolens volens, with its 'delightfully uncompromising title' (Mander, History, 289), quaint illustrations, and amusing frontispiece of a teacher lecturing his youthful charge, may be suggested by the fact that its title was parodied in Nolens volens, or, You shall learn to play on the violin whether you will or no (1694).

Coles was best-known as a lexicographer. An English Dictionary Explaining the Difficult Terms (1676; 13 edns to 1732) was the first general dictionary to include both a wide range of dialect (from John Ray, Collection of English Words not Generally used, 1674), and ‘canting terms’, or criminal slang or flash talk (from Richard Head's The Canting Academy, 1673). ''Tis no disparagement to understand the Canting Terms: It may chance to save your throat from being cut, or (at least) your Pocket from being pickt' (foreword). Coles was granted a licence (27 February 1678) for the exclusive right to print for fourteen years A Dictionary, English-Latin and Latin-English (1677; 27 edns to 1772), a work still in vogue after the publication of Robert Ainsworth's Thesaurus linguae Latinae compendiarius (1736).

Coles became second under-master at Merchant Taylors' School on 3 August 1677. In February 1678 he applied unsuccessfully for the mastership of Wolverhampton grammar school, a post left vacant by his father's recent death. It has been stated that he left Merchant Taylors' School 'upon some default, not now to be named' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.1275), but on 14 December 1678 Coles wrote from Dublin to resign and to inform the school that he had accepted the mastership of the free school of Galway, Ireland, at the behest of its founder, Erasmus Smith, saying that 'I aime at nothing more then [sic] to serve God comfortably & faithfully in my generation' (Mander, History, 156n.). His tenure there was brief, for he died at Galway on 20 December 1680 and was buried in the south aisle of the collegiate church of St Nicholas:

He was a curious and critical person in the English and Latin tongues, did much good in his calling, and wrote several useful and necessary books for the instruction of beginners, and therefore 'twas pitied by many that he was unhappily taken off from his prosperous proceedings.

Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.1275

Coles may have written other works. An E. Coles penned an enthusiastic commendatory poem for William Hopkins's The Flying Pen-Man (1674). The poem Christologia (1671; published under different titles, 1679, 1680), with preface signed ‘Elisha Coles, junior’, has been attributed both to him and to his cousin Elisha. While there might be a wish to assign this pedestrian verse to the cousin, it is arguable that Elisha Coles lexicographer is the author. In addition, a work on penmanship by the 'Author of Nolens volens' was advertised in November 1687 but was evidently never published.


  • W. J. Carlton, Bibliotheca Pepysiana, 4: Shorthand books (1940)
  • H. B. Wilson, The history of Merchant-Taylors' School, 2 vols. (1814)
  • G. P. Mander, The history of the Wolverhampton grammar school (1913)
  • G. P. Mander, ‘The identity of Elisha Coles’, The Library, 3rd ser., 10 (1919), 34–44
  • W. J. Carlton, ‘The identity of Elisha Coles’, N&Q, 165 (1933), 11
  • E. Bensley, ‘The identity of Elisha Coles: Oxford, “the eye of England”’, N&Q, 165 (1933), 49
  • J. H. Lewis, An historical account of the rise and progress of short hand (privately printed, London, 1825)
  • De W. T. Starnes and G. E. Noyes, The English dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson, 1604–1755 (1946), 58–63
  • E. Arber, ed., The term catalogues, 1668–1709, 3 vols. (privately printed, London, 1903–6)
  • A. Heal, The English writing-masters and their copy-books, 1570–1800 (1931) [repr. 1962]
  • CSP dom., 1677–8, 681, 683
  • M. F. Wakelin, ‘The treatment of dialect in English dictionaries’, Studies in lexicography, ed. R. Burchfield (1987), 156–77
  • T. Hayashi, The theory of English lexicography, 1530–1791 (1978)
  • A. Gabrielson, ‘Elisha Coles's Syncrisis (1675) as a source of information on 17th century English’, Englische Studien, 70 (1935–6), 149–52
  • J. A. G., ‘Elisha Coles's Dictionary’, N&Q, 4th ser., 2 (1868), 590
  • S. H. Harlowe, ‘“Caught napping”: Elisha Coles's Dictionary’, N&Q, 4th ser., 2 (1868), 471–2
  • E. Coles, The compleat English schoolmaster (1674)


  • E. Coles?, line engraving, 1707, repro. in E. Coles, The newest, plainest and best short-hand extant, 10th edn (1707)
  • oils; formerly in possession of Edward F. Rimbault, in 1875
Notes and Queries
A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)