AskDefine | Define dictionary

Dictionary Definition

dictionary n : a reference book containing an alphabetical list of words with information about them [syn: lexicon]

User Contributed Dictionary



dictionarium < dictionarius < dictio < perfect passive participle dictus < verb dicere, plus suffix -arium.


  • (UK) /ˈdɪkʃən(ə)ɹi/, /"dIkS@n(@)ri/
  • (US) , /ˈdɪkʃənˌɛɹi/, /"dIkS@n%Eri/


  1. A publication, usually a book, with a list of words from one or more languages, normally ordered alphabetically and explaining each word's meaning and sometimes containing information on its etymology, usage, translations and other data.


publication that explains the meanings of an ordered list of words

Extensive Definition

A dictionary is a book of alphabetically listed words in a specific language, with definitions, etymologies, pronunciations, and other information; or a book of alphabetically listed words in one language with their equivalents in another, also known as a lexicon.. The first dictionary of the Chinese language, the Shuowen Jiezi, was written around 100 CE (although other sources suggest that Chinese scholars may have created a monolingual dictionary as far back as 1109BC), while a Greek lexicon (specifically a list of words used by Homer, and their meanings) was written by Apollonius the Sophist at around the same time Daniel Webster also made a dictionary in the 1700s. It was one of America's first dictionaries. That is where the Webster part in dictionaries comes from.
The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. It was eight years ahead of the first Italian dictionary and thirty-five years ahead of the French. Conversely, it is eight hundred years after the first Arabic, and almost one-thousand years after the first Sanskrit in India. 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. It wasn't 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 testament 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 12 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.

Word order

Today, dictionaries of most languages with alphabetic and syllabic writing systems list words in lexicographic order, usually alphabetical or some analogous phonetic system.
In many languages, words are grouped together according to their root word, with the roots being arranged alphabetically. If English dictionaries were arranged like this, the words "import," "export," "support," "report," "porter," "important" and "transportation" would theoretically be listed under the Latin "portare," "to carry." This method has the advantage that all words of a common origin are listed together, but the disadvantage is that one has to know the roots of the word before one can look it up. Some Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic dictionaries work this way.
While most of Japanese and Korean dictionaries are arranged according to their phonetic writing (kana syllabic script for the Japanese, and hangul alphabet for the Korean), the main body of modern Chinese dictionaries mostly is ordered according to the latin alphabet with the pinyin spelling ; but most Chinese dictionaries have an appendix ordering entries accordance to the Chinese logographic writing system, in order to allow readers to find words written in logograms whose pronunciation is not known. Chinese characters may be sorted according to one of many schemes based on the component parts of the characters (radicals, number of strokes, overall shape).


Dictionaries can vary widely in coverage, size, and scope. A maximizing dictionary lists as many words as possible from a particular speech community (e.g., the Oxford English Dictionary), whereas a minimizing dictionary exclusively attempts to cover only a limited selection of words from a speech community (e.g., a dictionary of Basic English words). Take for instance, two dictionaries of Chinese characters: the pocket-sized minimizing dictionary Xinhua Zidian (2004, 700 pages) only includes 11,200 commonly used characters, while the multi-volume maximizing dictionary Hanyu Da Zidian (1995, 5800 pages) includes over 54,678 characters and variants.

Special-purpose dictionaries

There are many different types of special-purpose dictionaries, including bilingual, multilingual, scientifical, historical, biographical, technical and geographical dictionaries.

Specialized dictionaries

According to the Manual of Specialised Lexicography 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 semantic fields (e.g., a picture 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 lexical 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). See also LSP dictionary.

Data dictionaries

Data sets and databases collected and utilized for statistical analyses are typically accompanied by, or able to be used to generate, a list of all variable names used within the data set, as well as matters such as their meaning, values, level of measurement, length, decimal allowances, and type (numeric, string, etc.)


Another variant is the glossary, an alphabetical list of defined terms in a specialised field, such as medicine or science. 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.


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 (American English) phonemic spelling: /ˈdɪkʃəˌnɛri/. English dictionaries, however, often use other systems, such as the English Phonemic Representation system, in which the pronunciation of dictionary is given as [dĭk'shə-něr'ē]. Yet others use an ad hoc notation; for example, dictionary may become [DIK-shuh-ner-ee].
The online Turkish–English (and English–Turkish) dictionary Seslisozluk enables registered users to listen to the pronunciation of the words.

Variations between dictionaries

Prescription and description

Dictionary makers 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 color 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.
While descriptivists argue that prescriptivism is an unnatural attempt to dictate usage or curtail change, prescriptivists argue that to indiscriminately document "improper" or "inferior" usages sanctions those usages by default and causes language to "deteriorate". Although the debate can become very heated, only a small number of controversial words are usually affected. But the softening of usage notations, from the previous edition, for two words, ain't and regardless, out of over 450,000 in Webster's Third in 1961, was enough to provoke outrage among many with prescriptivist leanings, who branded the dictionary as "permissive."
The prescriptive/descriptive issue has been given so much consideration in modern times that most dictionaries of English apply the descriptive method to definitions, while additionally informing readers of 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 broad use of dictionaries, and their acceptance by many as language authorities, their treatment of the language does affect usage to some degree, even the most descriptive dictionaries providing conservative continuity. In the long run, however, usage primarily determines the meanings of words in English, 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."

Major English dictionaries



Relevant literature

  • Manual of Specialised Lexicography, Henning Bergenholtz/Sven Tarp (eds.), Benjamins Publishing, 1995
  • Diction and Stylistics of the 21st century, Darwin, Charles Schickelgruber Maxis (ed.), Jackson Publishing, 2001
  • The Bilingual LSP Dictionary, Sandro Nielsen, Gunter Narr Verlag 1994
  • Dictionaries, The Art and Craft of Lexicography, Sidney I. Landau, Simon & Schuster, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 0-684-18096-0
  • The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, HarperPerennial, New York, 1998, trade paperback, ISBN 0-06-017596-6. (published in the UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne)

External links

dictionary in Afrikaans: Woordeboek
dictionary in Arabic: قاموس
dictionary in Asturian: Diccionariu
dictionary in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Слоўнік
dictionary in Breton: Geriadur
dictionary in Bulgarian: Речник
dictionary in Catalan: Diccionari
dictionary in Chuvash: Словарь
dictionary in Czech: Slovník
dictionary in Welsh: Geiriadur
dictionary in Danish: Ordbog
dictionary in German: Wörterbuch
dictionary in Modern Greek (1453-): Λεξικό
dictionary in Spanish: Diccionario
dictionary in Esperanto: Vortaro
dictionary in Basque: Hiztegi
dictionary in French: Dictionnaire
dictionary in Galician: Dicionario
dictionary in Korean: 사전
dictionary in Hindi: शब्दकोश
dictionary in Croatian: Rječnik
dictionary in Ido: Vorto-libro
dictionary in Indonesian: Kamus
dictionary in Inuktitut: ᕿᒥᕐᕈᐊᑦ ᐅᓐᓂᖅᑐᖅ ᒥᑦᓯ ᑐᑭᐊ/qimirruat unniqtuq mitsi tukia
dictionary in Icelandic: Orðabók
dictionary in Italian: Dizionario
dictionary in Hebrew: מילון
dictionary in Javanese: Bausastra
dictionary in Kashubian: Słowôrz
dictionary in Kurdish: Ferheng
dictionary in Latin: Lexicon
dictionary in Latvian: Vārdnīca
dictionary in Lithuanian: Žodynas
dictionary in Ligurian: Dizionario
dictionary in Hungarian: Szótár
dictionary in Malagasy: Rakibolana
dictionary in Malay (macrolanguage): Kamus
dictionary in Dutch: Woordenboek
dictionary in Japanese: 辞典
dictionary in Neapolitan: Dezziunario
dictionary in Norwegian: Ordbok
dictionary in Norwegian Nynorsk: Ordbok
dictionary in Narom: Dictionnaithe
dictionary in Occitan (post 1500): Diccionari
dictionary in Polish: Słownik
dictionary in Portuguese: Dicionário
dictionary in Romanian: Dicţionar
dictionary in Romansh: Pledari
dictionary in Quechua: Simi qullqa
dictionary in Russian: Словарь
dictionary in Scots: Dictionar
dictionary in Sicilian: Dizziunariu
dictionary in Sinhala: ශබ්ද කෝෂය
dictionary in Simple English: Dictionary
dictionary in Slovak: Slovník
dictionary in Slovenian: Slovar
dictionary in Finnish: Sanakirja
dictionary in Swedish: Ordbok
dictionary in Tagalog: Talahuluganan
dictionary in Tamil: அகராதி
dictionary in Telugu: నిఘంటువు
dictionary in Thai: พจนานุกรม
dictionary in Vietnamese: Từ điển
dictionary in Tajik: Луғат
dictionary in Turkish: Sözlük
dictionary in Ukrainian: Словник
dictionary in Võro: Sõnaraamat
dictionary in Walloon: Motî
dictionary in Yiddish: ווערטערבוך
dictionary in Chinese: 詞典

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

biographical dictionary, cant, chemical dictionary, desk dictionary, dialect dictionary, dictionary of quotations, electronics dictionary, etymological dictionary, foreign-language dictionary, gazetteer, general dictionary, geological dictionary, gloss, glossary, gradus, jargon, language, lexicon, nomenclator, onomasticon, palaver, phrase book, polyglot dictionary, promptorium, rhyming dictionary, science dictionary, slang dictionary, specialized dictionary, synonym dictionary, synonymy, terminology, thesaurus, treasury of words, unabridged dictionary, vocabulary, word list, wordbook
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1