A dictionary (also called a word reference, wordbook, lexicon, or vocabulary) is a collection of words in one or more specific languages, often listed alphabetically (or by radical and stroke for ideographic languages), with usage information, definitions, etymologies, phonetics, pronunciations, and other information; or a book of words in one language with their equivalents in another, also known as a lexicon. According to Nielsen (2008) a dictionary may be regarded as a lexicographical product that is characterised by three significant features: (1) it has been prepared for one or more functions; (2) it contains data that have been selected for the purpose of fulfilling those functions; and (3) its lexicographic structures link and establish relationships between the data so that they can meet the needs of users and fulfill the functions of the dictionary.
A broad distinction is made between general and specialized dictionaries. Specialized dictionaries do not contain information about words that are used in language for general purposes—words used by ordinary people in everyday situations. Lexical items that describe concepts in specific fields are usually called terms instead of words, although there is no consensus whether lexicology and terminology are two different fields of study. In theory, general dictionaries are supposed to be semasiological, mapping word to definition, while specialized dictionaries are supposed to be onomasiological, first identifying concepts and then establishing the terms used to designate them. In practice, the two approaches are used for both types. There are other types of dictionaries that don't fit neatly in the above distinction, for instance bilingual (translation) dictionaries, dictionaries of synonyms ( thesauri), or rhyming dictionaries. The word dictionary (unqualified) is usually understood to refer to a monolingual general-purpose dictionary.
A different dimension on which dictionaries (usually just general-purpose ones) are sometimes distinguished is whether they are prescriptive or descriptive, the latter being in theory largely based on linguistic corpus studies—this is the case of most modern dictionaries. However, this distinction cannot be upheld in the strictest sense. The choice of headwords is considered itself of prescriptive nature; for instance, dictionaries avoid having too many taboo words in that position. Stylistic indications (e.g. ‘informal’ or ‘vulgar’) present in many modern dictionaries is considered less than objectively descriptive as well.
Although the first recorded dictionaries date back to Sumerian times (these were bilingual dictionaries), the systematic study of dictionaries as objects of scientific interest themselves is a 20th century enterprise, called lexicography, and largely initiated by Ladislav Zgusta. The birth of the new discipline was not without controversy, the practical dictionary-makers being sometimes accused of "astonishing" lack of method and critical-self reflection.
The oldest known dictionaries were Akkadian Empire cuneiform tablets with bilingual Sumerian– Akkadian wordlists, discovered in Ebla (modern Syria) and dated roughly 2300 BCE. The early 2nd millennium BCE Urra=hubullu glossary is the canonical Babylonian version of such bilingual Sumerian wordlists. A Chinese dictionary, the ca. 3rd century BCE Erya, was the earliest surviving monolingual dictionary; although some sources cite the ca. 800 BCE Shizhoupian as a "dictionary", modern scholarship considers it a calligraphic compendium of Chinese characters from Zhou dynasty bronzes. Philitas of Cos (fl. 4th century BCE) wrote a pioneering vocabulary Disorderly Words (Ἄτακτοι γλῶσσαι, Átaktoi glôssai) which explained the meanings of rare Homeric and other literary words, words from local dialects, and technical terms. Apollonius the Sophist (fl. 1st century CE) wrote the oldest surviving Homeric lexicon. The first Sanskrit dictionary, the Amarakośa, was written by Amara Sinha ca. 4th century CE. Written in verse, it listed around 10,000 words. According to the Nihon Shoki, the first Japanese dictionary was the long-lost 682 CE Niina glossary of Chinese characters. The oldest existing Japanese dictionary, the ca. 835 CE Tenrei Banshō Meigi, was also a glossary of written Chinese. A 9th century CE Irish dictionary, Sanas Cormaic, contained etymologies and explanations of over 1,400 Irish words. The oldest printed dictionary is Khaliq-e-bari compiled by Amir Khusro in 1320 India which mainly dealt with Hindvi and Persian words.
Arabic dictionaries were compiled between the 8th and 14th centuries CE, organizing words in rhyme order (by the last syllable), by alphabetical order of the radicals, or according to the alphabetical order of the first letter (the system used in modern European language dictionaries). The modern system was mainly used in specialist dictionaries, such as those of terms from the Qur'an and hadith, while most general use dictionaries, such as the Lisan al-`Arab (13th c., still the best-known large-scale dictionary of Arabic) and al-Qamus al-Muhit (14th c.) listed words in the alphabetical order of the radicals. The Qamus al-Muhit is the first handy dictionary in Arabic, which includes only words and their definitions, eliminating the supporting examples used in such dictionaries as the Lisan and the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest modern European dictionaries were bilingual dictionaries. In 1502 appeared the Cornucopia of Ambrogio Calepino, which in fact was a multilingual glossary. In 1532 Robert Estienne published the Thesaurus linguae latinae and in 1572 his son Henri Estienne published the Thesaurus linguae graecae, which served up to the 19th century as the basis of Greek lexicography. In 1612 was published the first edition of the Vocabolario dell' Accademia della Crusca, for Italian, which also served as the model for similar works in French, Spanish and English. In 1690 in Rotterdam was published, posthumously, the Dictionnaire Universel by Antoine Furetière for French. In 1694 appeared the first edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française. Between 1712 and 1721 was published the Vocabulario portughez e latino written by Raphael Bluteau. The Real Academia Espanola published the first edition of the Diccionario de la lengua espanola in 1780. The Totius Latinitatis lexicon by Egidio Forcellini was firstly published in 1777, it has formed the basis of all similar works that have since been published.
The first edition of A Greek-English Lexicon by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott appeared in 1843; this work remained the basic dictionary of Greek until the end of the 20th century. And in 1858 was published the first volume of the Deutsches Wörterbuch by the Brothers Grimm; the work was completed in 1961. Between 1861 and 1874 was published the Dizionario della lingua italiana by Niccolò Tommaseo. Émile Littré published the Dictionnaire de la langue française between 1863 and 1872. In the same year 1863 appeared the first volume of the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal which was completed in 1998. Also in 1863 Vladimir Ivanovich Dahl published the Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language. The Duden dictionary dates back to 1880, and is currently the prescriptive source for the spelling of German. In 1898 was printed the first volume of the Svenska Akademiens ordbok, whose publication is still in progress.
The earliest dictionaries in the English language were glossaries of French, Italian or Latin words along with definitions of the foreign words in English. Of note, the word dictionary was invented by an Englishman called John of Garland in 1220 - he had written a book Dictionarius to help with Latin diction. An early non-alphabetical list of 8000 English words was the Elementarie created by Richard Mulcaster in 1592.
The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The only surviving copy is found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Yet this early effort, as well as the many imitators which followed it, was seen as unreliable and nowhere near definitive. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield was still lamenting in 1754, 150 years after Cawdrey's publication, that it is "a sort of disgrace to our nation, that hitherto we have had no… standard of our language; our dictionaries at present being more properly what our neighbors the Dutch and the Germans call theirs, word-books, than dictionaries in the superior sense of that title."
It was not until Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that a truly noteworthy, reliable English Dictionary was deemed to have been produced, and the fact that today many people still mistakenly believe Johnson to have written the first English Dictionary is a testimony to this legacy. By this stage, dictionaries had evolved to contain textual references for most words, and were arranged alphabetically, rather than by topic (a previously popular form of arrangement, which meant all animals would be grouped together, etc.). Johnson's masterwork could be judged as the first to bring all these elements together, creating the first 'modern' dictionary.
Johnson's Dictionary remained the English-language standard for over 150 years, until the Oxford University Press began writing and releasing the Oxford English Dictionary in short fascicles from 1884 onwards. It took nearly 50 years to finally complete the huge work, and they finally released the complete OED in twelve volumes in 1928. It remains the most comprehensive and trusted English language dictionary to this day, with revisions and updates added by a dedicated team every three months. One of the main contributors to this modern day dictionary was an ex-army surgeon, William Chester Minor, a convicted murderer who was confined to an asylum for the criminally insane.
In 1806, American Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language; it took twenty-seven years to complete. To evaluate the etymology of words, Webster learned twenty-six languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit.
Webster completed his dictionary during his year abroad in 1825 in Paris, France, and at the University of Cambridge. His book contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary introduced American English spellings, replacing "colour" with "color", substituting "wagon" for "waggon", and printing "centre" instead of "centre". He also added American words, like "skunk" and "squash", that did not appear in British dictionaries. At the age of seventy, Webster published his dictionary in 1828; it sold 2500 copies. In 1840, the second edition was published in two volumes.
Austin (2005) explores the intersection of lexicographical and poetic practices in American literature, and attempts to map out a "lexical poetics" using Webster's definitions as his base. He explores how American poets used Webster's dictionaries, often drawing upon his lexicography in order to express their word play. Austin explicates key definitions from both the Compendious (1806) and American (1828) dictionaries, and brings into its discourse a range of concerns, including the politics of American English, the question of national identity and culture in the early moments of American independence, and the poetics of citation and of definition. Austin concludes that Webster's dictionaries helped redefine Americanism in an era of an emergent and unstable American political and cultural identity. Webster himself saw the dictionaries as a nationalizing device to separate America from Britain, calling his project a "federal language", with competing forces towards regularity on the one hand and innovation on the other. Austin suggests that the contradictions of Webster's lexicography were part of a larger play between liberty and order within American intellectual discourse, with some pulled toward Europe and the past, and others pulled toward America and the new future.
For an international appreciation of the importance of Webster's dictionaries in setting the norms of the English language, see Forque (1982).
In a general dictionary, each word may have multiple meanings. Some dictionaries include each separate meaning in the order of most common usage while others list definitions in historical order, with the oldest usage first.
In many languages, words can appear in many different forms, but only the undeclined or unconjugated form appears as the headword in most dictionaries. Dictionaries are most commonly found in the form of a book, but some newer dictionaries, like StarDict and the New Oxford American Dictionary are dictionary software running on PDAs or computers. There are also many online dictionaries accessible via the Internet.
According to the Manual of Specialized Lexicographies a specialized dictionary (also referred to as a technical dictionary) is a lexicon that focuses upon a specific subject field. Following the description in The Bilingual LSP Dictionary lexicographers categorize specialized dictionaries into three types. A multi-field dictionary broadly covers several subject fields (e.g., a business dictionary), a single-field dictionary narrowly covers one particular subject field (e.g., law), and a sub-field dictionary covers a singular field (e.g., constitutional law). For example, the 23-language Inter-Active Terminology for Europe is a multi-field dictionary, the American National Biography is a single-field, and the African American National Biography Project is a sub-field dictionary. In terms of the above coverage distinction between "minimizing dictionaries" and "maximizing dictionaries", multi-field dictionaries tend to minimize coverage across subject fields (for instance, Oxford Dictionary of World Religions) whereas single-field and sub-field dictionaries tend to maximize coverage within a limited subject field ( The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology).
Another variant is the glossary, an alphabetical list of defined terms in a specialised field, such as medicine or science.
- Medical dictionary
- Legal Dictionary
The simplest dictionary, a defining dictionary, provides a core glossary of the simplest meanings of the simplest concepts. From these, other concepts can be explained and defined, in particular for those who are first learning a language. In English, the commercial defining dictionaries typically include only one or two meanings of under 2000 words. With these, the rest of English, and even the 4000 most common English idioms and metaphors, can be defined.
Prescriptive vs. descriptive
Lexicographers apply two basic philosophies to the defining of words: prescriptive or descriptive. Noah Webster, intent on forging a distinct identity for the American language, altered spellings and accentuated differences in meaning and pronunciation of some words. This is why American English now uses the spelling colour while the rest of the English-speaking world prefers colour. (Similarly, British English subsequently underwent a few spelling changes that did not affect American English; see further at American and British English spelling differences.)
Large 20th-century dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Webster's Third are descriptive, and attempt to describe the actual use of words. Most dictionaries of English now apply the descriptive method to a word's definition, and then, outside of the definition itself, add information alerting readers to attitudes which may influence their choices on words often considered vulgar, offensive, erroneous, or easily confused. Merriam-Webster is subtle, only adding italicized notations such as, sometimes offensive or nonstand (nonstandard.) American Heritage goes further, discussing issues separately in numerous "usage notes." Encarta provides similar notes, but is more prescriptive, offering warnings and admonitions against the use of certain words considered by many to be offensive or illiterate, such as, "an offensive term for..." or "a taboo term meaning..."
Because of the widespread use of dictionaries in schools, and their acceptance by many as language authorities, their treatment of the language does affect usage to some degree, with even the most descriptive dictionaries providing conservative continuity. In the long run, however, the meanings of words in English are primarily determined by usage, and the language is being changed and created every day. As Jorge Luis Borges says in the prologue to "El otro, el mismo": "It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature."
Dictionaries for natural language processing
In contrast to traditional dictionaries, which are designed to be used by human beings, dictionaries for natural language processing (NLP) are built to be used by computer programs. (The final user is a human being but the direct user is a program.) Such a dictionary does not need to be able to be printed on paper. The structure of the content is not linear, ordered entry by entry but has the form of a complex graph. Because most of these dictionaries are used to control machine translations or cross-lingual information retrieval (CLIR) the content is usually multilingual and usually of huge size. In order to allow formalized exchange and merging of dictionaries, an ISO standard called Lexical Markup Framework (LMF) has been defined and used among the industrial and academic community.
- Bilingual dictionary
- Electronic dictionary
- Encyclopedic dictionary
- Monolingual learner's dictionary
- Advanced learner's dictionary
- By sound
- Phonetic dictionary
- Rhyming dictionary
- Reverse dictionary
- Visual dictionary
- Dictionary as an art form
Dictionaries for languages for which the pronunciation of words is not apparent from their spelling, such as the English language, usually provide the pronunciation, often using the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, the definition for the word dictionary might be followed by the phonemic spelling / /. American dictionaries, however, often use their own pronunciation spelling systems, for example dictionary dĭkʹ·shə·nār·ē, while the IPA is more commonly used within the British Commonwealth countries. Yet others use a respelling system; for example, dictionary may respelled DIK-shə-nair-ee. Some on-line or electronic dictionaries provide recordings of words being spoken.
Major English dictionaries
- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (prescriptive)
- The American College Dictionary by Clarence L. Barnhart
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
- Black's Law Dictionary, a law dictionary
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
- Canadian Oxford Dictionary
- Century Dictionary
- Chambers Dictionary
- Collins English Dictionary
- Concise Oxford English Dictionary
- Macquarie Dictionary, a dictionary of Australian English
- New Oxford Dictionary of English
- Oxford Dictionary of English
- Oxford English Dictionary (descriptive)
- Random House Dictionary of the English Language
- Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (prescriptive)
- Webster's Dictionary (descriptive)
- Webster's New World Dictionary
Dictionaries of other languages
Histories and descriptions of the dictionaries of other languages include:
- Chinese dictionaries
- Dutch dictionaries
- French dictionaries
- German dictionaries
- Japanese dictionaries
- Scottish Gaelic dictionaries
- Scottish Language Dictionaries
- Dehkhoda Dictionary ( Persian Language)
There exist a number of websites which operate as online dictionaries, usually with a specialized focus. Some of them have exclusively user driven content, often consisting of neologisms. Some of the more notable examples include:
- Double-Tongued Dictionary (user generated content)
- Free On-line Dictionary of Computing
- LEO (website)
- Logos Dictionary
- Pictual (website)
- Pseudodictionary (exclusively user-defined neologisms, with humorous intent)
- Urban Dictionary (much of the content ephemeral slang terminology, some with sources)
- Wiktionary (multilingual dictionary, a Wikipedia project)
- WWWJDIC (online Japanese dictionary)