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DICTIONARY A generic name for a kind of reference book, usually devoted to the definition of words entered in alphabetic order, such as the Collins English Dictionary, but also including works of an encyclopedic nature, such as The Oxford Dictionary of Natural History. Such books are so closely associated with alphabetized entries that the phrase dictionary order is synonymous with alphabetic(al) order, but in fact since the Middle Ages many works called ‘dictionaries’ have been differently arranged, and a wide range of reference books, including thesauruses and gazetteers, are referred to for convenience as ‘dictionaries’. Among the many kinds of dictionary, the commonest contrast is between monolingual or unilingual dictionaries that list and define the words of one language and bilingual dictionaries that offer the equivalents of Language A in Language B, and vice versa. In computing, the term refers to both a list of codes, terms, keys, etc., and their meanings, as used in computer programs, and a list of words (often drawn from a conventional dictionary) against which spellings can be checked.



The earliest known prototypes of the dictionary were West Asian bilingual word lists of the second millennium BC. They were Sumerian and Akkadian words inscribed in parallel columns on clay tablets in cuneiform writing and were organized thematically. Even after the invention of the alphabet later in the same millennium many centuries passed before alphabetic ordering became a common tool for organizing information. The lists came into existence because the Akkadians (Babylonians) had inherited through conquest the culture and traditions of Sumer and used the sets of signs as a means by which their scribes could learn what was, in effect, the classical language of writing. Over two thousand years later in medieval Europe, the same principle was used when scribes who spoke vernacular languages learned to read and write in Latin; the first European dictionaries were bilingual lists of (difficult) words of Latin explained in the vernacular of the learners in question. A typical work that made Latin words accessible through English glosses was the Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum (Storehouse for little ones or clerics) of Galfridus Grammaticus ( Geoffrey the Grammarian), compiled around 1440.

The hard-word dictionaries


The need for a work in which harder English words were explained by easier English words arose in the late 16c. The first published dictionary of English was Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall (1604), which contained fewer than 3,000 ‘hard vsuall English wordes’ listed alphabetically in roman type with the barest of explanations in black letter: Dulcor, sweetnesse; Placable, easie to be pleased. It was designed for quick consultation by ‘Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons’, to help them understand and use foreign borrowings. It was followed by John Bullokar's English Expositor (1616), Henry Cockeram's English Dictionarie (1623), the first to be given that name, and Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1656), which had some 9,000 words, fuller definitions, and etymologies. Such works were concerned only with ‘hard words’, the classical vocabulary of Renaissance English: they bristled with ‘Terms of Art’, the technical and semitechnical words coined by geographers, mathematicians, doctors, and others. They were highly derivative, drawing in particular on the older Latin—English dictionaries, and answered a real need: Cockeram went through 12 editions to 1670 and the last of many printings of Bullokar was in 1775.

The universal dictionaries


The hardword tradition went on into the 18c in the work of John Kersey and Nathaniel Bailey, and traces survive in such traditional works as the Chambers English Dictionary (1988). A novel approach emerged, however, in the New World of English Words (1658) by Edward Phillips, a nephew of Milton and a miscellaneous hack writer. His folio volume had its hard words, but was altogether grander and more inclusive. By the 5th edition in 1696, it had grown to about 17,000 items and in 1706 was revised and further enlarged by John Kersey. Nathaniel Bailey's folio Dictionarium Britannicum (1730) is in the same tradition but with a new emphasis on scientific and industrial matters: for example, with a page on orrery, and 17 items on the metal lead. With the publication of special works such as John Harris's Lexicon Technicum (1704), the need for such encyclopedic material in general dictionaries was already decreasing; when Samuel Johnson set his face against extraneous matter, a British tradition of dictionaries for words and encyclopedias for facts was confirmed.

The notion that a dictionary should as far as possible be an inventory of all the words of the language became established with Kersey's New English Dictionary (1702), which gave the dictionary a place in competition with spelling books as a quick look-up source. To begin with, little information was given about common words (‘To do, or act, &c.’ is the whole of Kersey's entry for that verb), but from this time forward the monolingual dictionary was of greater value to foreign learners of English. Since Elisha Coles's English Dictionary (1676), a sprinkling of the commoner dialect words, as well as some cant and flash terms, had come to be included in general dictionaries. With these, the need arose for more systematic usage labels to warn the reader of the status of such a word. Some obsolete items had been given a distinctive mark by Bullokar in 1616 and the uptake of ‘old words’ increased in the 18c, including legal items and literary archaisms drawn especially from Spenser and Chaucer. Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721) gave English a one-volume reference dictionary of some 40,000 entries that was strong on bookish and technical vocabulary, weak in definition and semantic coverage, up-to-date in spelling, and provided the accepted etymologies of its day. It was the standard dictionary of the 18c and was gradually updated and enlarged to some 50,000 entries through successive editions and reprintings to the 28th and last edition in 1800.

Johnson's dictionary


The Dictionary of the English Language (1755) by Samuel JOHNSON differs from the works of his predecessors in both scale and intention. On the model of the dictionaries of the French and Italian academies, he sought to encapsulate the ‘best’ usage of his day, and did this on the basis of over 100,000 quotations from Sir Philip Sidney in the 16c to his own time. In definition and the internal arrangement of entries Johnson also went beyond his rivals. Benjamin Martin, in his Lingua Britannica Reformata (1749), had been the first English compiler to mark off the different senses of words; by arranging his senses chronologically, Johnson enabled his readers to follow the evolution of each word and provided the foundation for the historical lexicography of the 19–20c. Johnson gave little attention to collocation, idiom, and grammatical information, although he provided a brief grammar at the front. In cases of divided or uncertain usage he provided a prescriptive comment (governant: ‘a lady who has the care of young girls of quality. The more general and proper word is governess’). His dictionary enjoyed unique authority among successive generations of users in the matter of word choice and word meaning. In spelling, it represented a strongly conservative tradition, compared with which Bailey was progressive: horrour, inferiour, etc., where Bailey has horror, inferior, etc.

Pronouncing dictionaries


The provision of information about pronunciation developed in the later 18c. Johnson, following Bailey's second volume (1727) and Thomas Dyche's and William Pardon's New General English Dictionary (1735), marked only word stress. With an increasing concern for orthoepy (proper pronunciation), however, pronouncing dictionaries became established in the latter half of the 18c, of which John Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1791) was the foremost. Walker provided his pronunciations immediately after each headword, dividing each italicized word into its syllables and placing a superscript number over each vowel to indicate its value as specified in a list at the beginning of the book. The Walker pronunciations were effectively married with Johnson's definitions in many of the abridged versions of Johnson's Dictionary, which lasted well into the 19c.

A shift across the Atlantic


In 1828, Noah WEBSTER, a publisher of school spelling books, created a new tradition and lent status to English as it was developing in North America with his American Dictionary of the English Language, which contained some 12,000 words not listed by Johnson and offered definitions of many words and concepts current in the New World. Webster rejected many of the more conservative spellings in Johnson and established for AmE forms like honor, color (not honour, colour), a different pattern for spelling inflected forms (traveler, traveling, traveled, not traveller, travelling, travelled, etc.), and -ize for -ise. Some reforms were based on etymology (Latin color, honor) and some were phonetic (-ize for -ise). One of Webster's employees, Joseph E. Worcester, established his own dictionary-publishing venture in Boston, and produced in 1830 his Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary, which went through several editions (1846, 1855, 1860) and was closer to the Johnsonian tradition. In his preface to A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (1846), Worcester wrote of Johnson's Dictionary: ‘His dictionary, from the time of its first publication, has been far more than any other, regarded as a standard for the language.’ This view was shared by many in the US, especially by those who rejected Webster in favour of Worcester.

Other dictionaries by Worcester include A Pronouncing, Explanatory, and Synonymous Dictionary of the English Language (1855) and A Dictionary of the English Language (1860). Worcester died in 1865; although his heirs carried on, the competition from Webster's dictionaries proved too much, and the company failed. Webster died in 1843, but his son, William G. Webster, carried on, and in 1847, with Chauncey A. Goodrich of Yale, published a revised edition of the earlier work. Successive editions appeared in 1864 and 1890; in 1909 appeared a relatively large work, the 1st edition of The New International Dictionary of the English Language; a 2nd edition appeared in 1934, and a 3rd in 1961. The Second Edition, edited by William Allan Neilson, came to be regarded as the standard among dictionaries published in the US. Because of its descriptive approach (among other things), Webster's Third created even more consternation among conservatives in the mid-20c than Noah Webster's break with British tradition over a century earlier, and it failed to gain universal acceptance.



During the 19c, US and UK publishers often produced new dictionaries by adapting established works, sometimes without acknowledgement but often through agreements with the publishers of the existing works. Such cooperation could lead to a succession of related works over many decades. For example, the Scottish publisher Blackie selected the 1841 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language as the basis for a dictionary to be prepared by the mathematician John Ogilvie. This work, the Imperial Dictionary, English, Technological, & Scientific, was published in parts between 1847 and 1850. It was more encyclopedic than the Webster and greatly expanded the use of illustrative engravings. When Ogilvie died in 1867, Charles Annandale began to edit a revision, which was published in 1882–3. The illustrations were augmented, and the entry and definition coverage expanded to include Americanisms, slang, and colloquialisms. This series of dictionaries was successful in Britain, and the Century Company, an American publisher of the periodical The Country Magazine, published an edition for sale in the US. In 1882, Century put forward a plan for The Century Dictionary, to be based on the Annandale edition of Ogilvie, to which they had acquired the rights. As that work had been based, originally, on a Webster dictionary, ironic intricacies emerged concerning the ultimate basis of The Century, which was prepared during 1884–9 under the direction of William Dwight Whitney. This work, available in several editions (1889–1911), occupied ten quarto volumes. Though out of date, it is still widely regarded as a paragon of clarity and accuracy for its definitions and etymologies and as a model of design, production, illustration, typography, paper, printing, and binding. Several dictionaries have been directly or indirectly based on it, including The American College Dictionary (Random House, 1947), The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966), and the Collins English Dictionary (1979).

Popular and scholarly dictionaries


By the late 19c, the making of dictionaries of English had fallen into two broad types: general, usually single-volume works for the expanding community of the literate, such as Chambers's English Dictionary (1872), and scholarly dictionaries on philological principles, often multi-volume, concerned either with cataloguing distinct varieties in great detail, such as the English Dialect Dictionary (1898–1905), or with covering the entire language, such as the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles that emerged from plans made by the Philological Society in 1858 and ultimately became the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (1st edition, 12 volumes, 1928; 2nd edition, 20 volumes, 1989). The family of Oxford dictionaries is closely related to the OED and combines the two types. Its general list is relatively recent, beginning in 1911 with the 1st edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary, edited by the brothers H. W. and F. G. Fowler.

The dictionary industry


The number of dictionaries of English published in the 19–20c in Britain, America, and increasingly elsewhere (especially Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, New Zealand, and South Africa) is vast and varied. In terms of the size of books and the markets for which they are intended, they range from the great multi-volume works through the large ‘unabridged’ dictionaries and the single-volume desk and family dictionaries to the mid-range collegiate and concise editions, various school and pocket editions, down to a plethora of minis and micros. Leading publishers of dictionaries aim at bringing out and keeping up to date volumes at all or most of these levels, often presented in a standard livery with a logo that seeks to catch the eye. Beyond these mainstream products are a multidue of specialities, such as products for the fiercely competitive ELT market that has developed since the Second World War, the complex range of bilingual publications for English and the world's significant languages, and special-interest works relating to etymology and word histories, dialects and regional varieties, technical subjects (e.g. Psychology Dictionary), controversial usage, slang, and the vocabulary of subcultures. See LEXICOGRAPHY.


views updated May 18 2018


DICTIONARIES. In the colonial era, Americans used British dictionaries. While dictionaries were published in the colonies during the late eighteenth century, nearly all of them were based on the famous 1755 lexicon compiled by Samuel Johnson in London. Dictionaries of the English language were not widely used until the early nineteenth century, when the expansion of print culture and basic schooling moved the dictionary into countless homes and offices. Dictionaries came in various sizes but most popular was the "school dictionary," a book about as big as a contemporary pocket dictionary. The first dictionary compiled by an American was Samuel Johnson Jr.'s A School Dictionary, published in 1798. The author was no relation to the famed British lexicographer.

The first well-known American dictionary was Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. Webster is often thought of as a linguistic nationalist, but he was actually more of a linguistic reformer. He argued that English, both in Britain and the United States, should follow "rational" rules. He introduced a system to reform English spelling and make it more uniform. He also devised an elaborate etymological system, based on his own research. This etymology won almost no acceptance at the time and remains universally discredited. Webster's faith in the rational reform of language contradicted the traditional commitment of the Anglo-American lexicography to use dictionaries to record refined usage.

Joseph Worcester, a Boston lexicographer, published a competing dictionary in 1846, three years after Webster died. A new edition of Webster's dictionary appeared the next year, published by the Merriam-Webster Company. These publications set off the "dictionary wars" of the 1840s and 1850s. Educators, editors, literary people, and even politicians all took sides, debating linguistics and hurling insults. Webster's publishers won the war in the 1860s by making their dictionary more conventional. The strange spellings and etymologies disappeared—Webster's dictionary now recorded refined contemporary usage.

Dictionary-making took a new turn after the Civil War (1861–1865). Lexicographers started adding thousands of slang and technical terms to major dictionaries as well as recording the history of words. They began to quote from newspapers as well as literature. Current re-fined usage was no longer the only principle of selection. These lexicographers also started recording national and regional variations of the language. In 1890, the Merriam-Webster Company renamed its flagship text Webster's International Dictionary. These dictionaries became huge, the largest of them becoming multivolume. The most famous of these "encyclopedic" dictionaries was British, the Oxford English Dictionary, edited by James A. H. Murray. Compilation on that dictionary began in the 1860s. An American text, The Century Dictionary of the English Language, edited by the Yale philologist William Dwight Whitney, is unknown today but was a competitor of the Oxford dictionary at the time. Whitney's was the first dictionary in the United States to enthusiastically include slang. Despite some opposition from conservatives opposed to slang and newspaper quotations, the new encyclopedic dictionary quickly became the standard form for the major dictionaries of the English language.

As the comprehensive dictionaries became huge, a new format was needed to accommodate most day-to-day use. In 1898, the Merriam-Webster Company published the first "collegiate" dictionary. Neatly packed into one manageable volume, this became the most popular dictionary of the next century, found as often in the home or office as in a college dorm room. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary dominated the first half of the century; Random House's American College Dictionary, first published in 1947, was most popular in the second half. In the 1990s, 2 million collegiate dictionaries were sold each year. The only other format that rivaled its popularity was the paperback pocket dictionary, introduced in the 1950s.

The 1961 publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary served as a flash point for new debates about informality and slang. Philip Gove, the editor of the new Webster's, streamlined definitions and tried to eliminate overbearing editorializing. Academics, journalists, and literary people all over the country quickly took sides for or against the book. As during the dictionary war of the 1850s, the debate was intense, with linguistics and invective freely mixing. One particularly charged argument was over Webster's entry for "ain't." Critics claimed that Webster's Third sanctioned its use. Gove countered that the entry reflected the way people really talked. In general, critics argued that the new dictionary abandoned any meaningful effort to distinguish good English from bad English. Dictionaries, defenders argued, were supposed to describe the language, not regulate it.

The early 1960s debate over Webster's Third was really part of a larger discussion about the merits or demerits of progressive education. Controversy about progressive methods of schooling became particularly intense in the years after 1957, when the Soviet Union put a satellite in outer space and took the lead—for the moment—in the space race. There was widespread concern that soft, progressive methods in schools had put the United States behind in the Cold War. Critics of Webster's Third echoed arguments then being made against "progressive" methods of teaching English.

Despite the criticism, Webster's Third was a commercial success. Later in the decade, two other dictionaries appeared that became popular competitors. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966) and the American Heritage Dictionary (1969) were both conservative alternatives to Webster's. The American Heritage, a collegiate dictionary, was immediately popular and remained so through the end of the century. It created a "usage panel" of 105 leading writers, editors, and professors to give advice about good and bad English. A number of its members had been vocal critics of Webster's Third.

In the 1990s, dictionary makers became preoccupied with going electronic. The Random House Dictionary and Encarta World English Dictionary were the first to become available on CD-ROM. The Oxford English Dictionary started working on an online version in 1994; it became commercially available in 2000, being licensed to libraries for a fee. The electronic emphasis promises to turn future dictionaries into multimedia works, with pronunciations spoken instead of written, routine links to encyclopedia entries, and lexicons updated constantly instead of having a single new edition compiled every generation.


Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight Over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Friend, Joseph. The Development of American Lexicography, 1798–1864. The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1967.

Landau, Sidney. Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


See alsoEnglish Language ; Linguistics .


views updated May 21 2018

dic·tion·ar·y / ˈdikshəˌnerē/ (abbr.: dict.) • n. (pl. -ar·ies) a book that lists the words of a language in alphabetical order and gives their meaning, or that gives the equivalent words in a different language. ∎  a reference book on any subject, the items of which are arranged in alphabetical order: a dictionary of quotations.PHRASES: have swallowed a dictionary inf. (of a person) use long and obscure words when speaking.


views updated May 21 2018

dictionary Book that lists in alphabetical order, words and their definitions. A dictionary may be general or subject oriented. In the former category, Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is the pioneering work in English; its two most comprehensive descendants are (in the UK) the Oxford English Dictionary, published from 1884, and (in the USA) Webster's Dictionary, published from 1828.


views updated May 11 2018

dictionary Any data structure representing a set of elements that can support the insertion and deletion of elements as well as a test for membership. See also data dictionary, symbol table.


views updated May 23 2018

dictionary XVI. — medL. dictiōnārium, -us, f. L. dictiō phrase, word; see prec., -ARY.