dictionary, published list, in alphabetical order, of the words of a language. In monolingual dictionaries the words are explained and defined in the same language; in bilingual dictionaries they are translated into another language. Modern dictionaries usually also provide phonetic transcriptions, hyphenation, synonyms, derived forms, and etymology. However, a dictionary of a living language can never be complete; old words fall into disuse, new words are constantly created, and those surviving frequently change their meanings. The modern dictionary is often prescriptive rather than descriptive, for it attempts to establish certain forms as preferable. The most remarkable case of this sort is the dictionary of the French Academy, which is both widely admired and ignored. The popular American attitude of the 19th cent. toward dictionaries gave them a nearly sacred authority, but in the 20th cent. the dictionary makers themselves began to replace notions of purity (especially based on etymology) by criteria of use, somewhat ahead of analogous developments in grammar. Because of the unprecedented scientific advances of the 20th cent., many scientific terms have come into popular use and consequently have increased the size of general dictionaries.
Early English Dictionaries
Lexicography is an ancient occupation; dictionaries of many sorts were produced in China, Greece, Islam, and other complex early cultures. The 13th-century Dictionarius of John of Garland is the first recorded use of the term to mean word list. Nathan Bailey (d. 1742) was the author of three English dictionaries so much more comprehensive and consistent than any of their predecessors as rightly to be considered the first examples of modern lexicography. His Universal Etymological English Dictionary was published in 1721; his larger dictionary, Dictionarium Britannicum, was published in 1730. An interleaved copy of this larger work was used by Samuel Johnson in preparing the two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, which appeared in 1755. Johnson's definitions evince his scholarship, humor, judgment, and skill and are basic to later lexicography. William Kenrick, who published a dictionary in 1773, was first to indicate pronunciation with diacritical marks (see accent) and to divide words according to their syllables. The dictionary of Thomas Sheridan (1721–88), an actor, was published in 1780, and the dictionary of John Walker (1732–1807), also an actor, in 1791. In both these dictionaries special care was given to pronunciation, as to which, for many years, Walker's authority received more deference than it merited.
The American Dictionaries of Webster and Others
The next great lexicographer after Samuel Johnson was an American, Noah Webster (1758–1843). The first edition of the book later known as Webster's Spelling Book appeared in 1783. For years the annual sales of this book were more than a million copies. To help those who had mastered the Spelling Book to continue their education, Webster published (1806) his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, with concern for "what the English language is, and not, how it might have been made." His larger dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in two volumes, was published in 1828. Authorized publishers have issued a series of skillful revisions and abridgments that have retained for Webster's dictionaries their popularity. The largest of Webster's dictionaries, called "the Unabridged," appeared as the 5th edition (1846) and included linguistic material that set it apart from previous Webster's dictionaries and made it outstanding. Continually revised, it is currently published in one volume.
Another notable one-volume American dictionary was that by Joseph Emerson Worcester (1784–1865), first published in 1830; an edition revised by the author appeared in 1860 and was the first to employ a group of expert consultants, use illustrations, and indicate synonyms in the text. A later one-volume American dictionary was the Funk and Wagnalls Standard, completed in 1895. This dictionary listed definitions according to current rather than historical frequency of usage, an innovation that was generally adopted. The Century Dictionary, an American dictionary in six volumes, with encyclopedic features, was completed in 1891. Supplementary volumes were The Century Cyclopedia of Names (1894) and The Century Atlas of the World (1897).
Illustrative Examples and the Oxford Dictionaries
In England, progress in lexicography since Walker's time has been notably in the collection and organization of examples of usage. In 1836–37, Charles Richardson (1775–1865) published, in two volumes, a dictionary richer in illustrative examples than any of its predecessors. In 1857 the Philological Society began collecting dated examples of usage. This work of the Philological Society made possible the publication of the dictionary variously known as the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Murray's Dictionary (for Sir James A. H. Murray, 1837–1915, one of the editors). Publication of this dictionary began in 1884 and was completed in 1928, 70 years after the collecting of the material began. The 12 volumes and supplement of this monumental and unrivaled lexicon described the history of some 250,000 English words, incorporating more than 2 million citations of usage in the process of defining a total of nearly 415,000 words. A 20-volume second edition, published in 1989, incorporates the four-volume supplement and contains over 616,000 words. Two major shorter editions are published: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (5th ed. 1964) and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (rev. ed. 1993). A much less ambitious but notable project is the four-volume Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, edited by Sir William Alexander Craigie. It was completed in 1943.
Notable Recent Dictionaries
Recent advances in lexicography have been made by the frequently revised collegiate or desk dictionary, an up-to-date abridgment of a large, comprehensive work. The Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed. 2008) is based on Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961; it has many notable competitors. Also notable are several modern American dictionaries of intermediate size, including the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 1987) and the well-illustrated American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed. 2011). Another significant contemporary dictionary, 50 years in the making, is the comprehensive Dictionary of American Regional English (5 vol., 1985–2012).
In the early 1990s computer technology made possible the release of dictionaries on floppy disks or CD-ROM, e.g., the electronic edition of The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1993). Electronic dictionaries also became available as part of multivolume reference-book packages, such as Microsoft's Bookshelf CD-ROM, and as a feature of online services. Computer technology provided new ways to search for and link words and new ways to illustrate them, e.g., prerecorded pronunciations that users can play back. By the end of the 1990s many dictionaries were available in various print and electronic editions; the newly created Encarta World English Dictionary (1999) was released both as a printed book and a CD-ROM. Dictionaries or dictionarylike functions are now also available independently on the Internet, as a feature of search websites, and as applications for smartphones and other electronic devices.
See J. Green, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made (1997).