What is a Dictionary? - Definition, Use & History

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  • 0:05 Definition of the Dictionary
  • 1:07 The First English Dictionary
  • 3:17 The Oxford English Dictionary
  • 4:06 What Dictionaries Contain
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
A dictionary is essential for finding word meanings, and it has other helpful uses as well. In this lesson, we will explore the history of the dictionary and find out how to use one effectively.

Definition of the Dictionary

It seems ironic to be defining the term 'dictionary,' but here we go! Dictionaries are resources for finding word meanings, parts of speech, word origins and even synonyms and antonyms. Dictionaries have definitely evolved over the years.

The English language really began with the Anglo-Saxons in Great Britain. The Norse invasion that followed highly influenced the English language as well, but the language didn't stabilize until the latter part of the Medieval period with much more writing. Clearly, our language contains French, Greek, Latin and Germanic roots, as well as influences from Hebrew and other languages. In fact, one of the most difficult parts of being an English language learner is this mishmash of roots and rules.

During the years 1500-1650, it is estimated that the number of known English words doubled. At the end of the medieval period, London became the standard for properly spoken and written English, and during the years that followed, the English language shifted to contain the distinct features it has today.

The First English Dictionaries

One of the first dictionaries, entitled The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1538), was actually bilingual. It was followed by others, such as the Dictionarie French and English (1593) by Claudius Hollyband. It is interesting to note that in 1582, a man named Richard Mulcaster wrote The Elementarie, a spelling guide with undefined words.

In 1604, Robert Cawdrey compiled the first 'authentic' English dictionary, entitled Table Alphabeticall, which contained just 2,543 words and their definitions. Humorously, the subtitle to the book was for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen and other unskilled folk. Cawdrey is to be credited for inventing the idea that a dictionary should flow from A to Z. Some of the definitions are funny, and the spelling of many words is definitely different from today. Only one copy survived, and now it has been reprinted.

Cawdrey's dictionary paved the way for others, like the 1616 English Expositor (1616) by John Bullokar and English Dictionary by Elisha Coles.

In 1656, Glossographia by Thomas Blount was published, containing more than 10,000 words along with their etymologies, or histories. A few years later, a rival dictionary, The New World of English Words: Or, a General Dictionary, was written by Edward Phillips. Phillips boldly plagiarized Blount's work, and the two renounced each other. This created more interest in the dictionaries.

In 1755, one of the most authoritative and famous dictionaries was published by Samuel Johnson in two volumes. It was entitled Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson, with the help of six other people, wrote clever definitions with the goal of writing a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained and its duration lengthened. It set the standard for dictionaries that followed.

The Oxford English Dictionary

One of the most famous dictionaries of the English language is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and we will explore how it came to be developed. In 1857, the Philological Society of London felt that all existing dictionaries were insufficient. We can imagine how the English language had changed over the years, and so the project began. However, it was so extensive that the first portions weren't published until 1884.

The complete dictionary was finished in 1928. It was first entitled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, and it contained more than 400,000 words - some dating back to the 1100s. The work is so extensive and thorough that it is still considered to be the standard authority on the English language today.

What Dictionaries Contain

Let's look up the word 'sloth.' We see three definitions in Dictionary.com for this word.

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