Where do dictionaries come from?



History of dictionaries (from Stockwell and Minkova Appendix)

          A very recent phenomenon

                   Human language: at least 50,000 years old

                   Early medieval glossaries: Latin: Latin hard words

                             Latin: Old English

                                      glossing, then glossaries


          First English: English Dictionary: Samuel Johnson, 1755 (250 years ago)

really before that: 1600s: dictionaries of “very hard words” due to the large influx of Latin and Greek vocabulary


                   HOW did people know what words meant?


“ain’t aint’ a words, cause ain’t aint’ in the dictionary”?  What about before dictionaries?


          All our greatest writers did fine without dictionaries


Lexicon, Lexicography, Lexicographer


          What is a word?


                   Do, doing, does




                             “It was raining cats and dogs”


                             “Come in” “put up with” “face the music”




Counting “words”--near impossible


·       When do you separate headwords?

·       Do hyphenated words count?

·       Do phrasal verbs count as separate words?

·       What of homonyms?

o   Saw (verb), saw (noun) saw (noun)

o   lock (of a door) lock (of a canal)


CRYSTAL’s comparisons


Bilingual Dictionaries

          for foreign language help

                   beware of assuming equivalencies


          General purpose English: English dictionary

1.    Unabridged

Not shortened

*Not that is contains every word

          CRYSTAL’s comparisons

what is a word?

          HOW many words?

                   Generally exclude technical words

2.    Desk


1.    Unabridged:

Oxford English Dictionary

Greatest of all dictionaries in any language

          Compiled from it’s own citation files

                   How a dictionary is written

                             based almost exclusively on WRITTEN texts


Organized Johnson’s system of quotations to support meaning

Johnson's s sources: almost exclusively literary,


·       “[prefers] writers of the first reputation to those of an inferior rank”

·       [examples in the main] “from the writers before the restoration, whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled”


Shakespeare (15.5%

Dryden (10%

Milton (5.7

Bacon, the Bible, Addison, and Pope (4.5 each



OED: First ed., 1884-1928

Attempts to included every word in the English language since the Norman Conquest


Still based, in the main, on literary sources, with a very traditional view of the Canon:

Citations, in order of frequency:

Shakespeare, the Bible, Walter Scott, Cursor Mundi, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Dickens, Tennyson 

                             Contains a very large number of archaic/obsolete words

                   What is Etymology?

                   Lists entries in the historical order of the development of a word

          20 massive volumes



Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed. 1961

          Greatest American Dictionary

          The only one with any legal connection to Noah Webster (1828, 1841)

                   fewer obsolete words

                   more technical vocabulary


          Controversy: Includes many words and expressions without judgment:

Attempts to describe how the language IS used, not prescribe how the language OUGHT to be used


2.    Desk

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate

American Heritage Dictionary: with Usage Panel!



Logical order vs. historical order


Using the OED online

Other dictionaries