For other uses, see Dictionary (disambiguation).
A dictionary, sometimes known as a wordbook, is a collection of words in one or more specific languages, often arranged alphabetically (or by radical and stroke for ideographic languages), which may include information on definitions, usage, etymologies, pronunciations, translation, etc. or a book of words in one language with their equivalents in another, sometimes known as a lexicon. It is a lexicographical product which shows inter-relationships among the data.
A broad distinction is made between general and specialized dictionaries. Specialized dictionaries include words in specialist fields, rather than a complete range of words in the language. 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 do not fit neatly into the above distinction, for instance bilingual (translation) dictionaries, dictionaries of synonyms (thesauri), and rhyming dictionaries. The word dictionary (unqualified) is usually understood to refer to a general purpose monolingual dictionary.
There is also a contrast between prescriptive or descriptive dictionaries; the former reflect what is seen as correct use of the language while the latter reflect recorded actual use. Stylistic indications (e.g. "informal" or "vulgar") in many modern dictionaries are also considered by some to be less than objectively descriptive.
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 by others 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 c. 3rd century BCE Erya, was the earliest surviving monolingual dictionary; although some sources cite the c. 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 c. 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 c. 835 CE Tenrei Banshō Meigi, was also a glossary of written Chinese. In Frahang-i Pahlavig, Aramaicheterograms are listed together with their translation in Middle Persian language and phonetic transcription in Pazand alphabet. A 9th-century CE Irish dictionary, Sanas Cormaic, contained etymologies and explanations of over 1,400 Irish words. In India around 1320, Amir Khusro compiled the Khaliq-e-bari which mainly dealt with Hindustani 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 century, still the best-known large-scale dictionary of Arabic) and al-Qamus al-Muhit (14th century) 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.
In medieval Europe, glossaries with equivalents for Latin words in vernacular or simpler Latin were in use (e.g. the Leiden Glossary). The Catholicon (1287) by Johannes Balbus, a large grammatical work with an alphabetical lexicon, was widely adopted. It served as the basis for several bilingual dictionaries and was one of the earliest books (in 1460) to be printed. In 1502 Ambrogio Calepino's Dictionarium was published, originally a monolingual Latin dictionary, which over the course of the 16th century was enlarged to become 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. The first monolingual dictionary written in Europe was the Spanish, written by Sebastián Covarrubias' Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, published in 1611 in Madrid, Spain. In 1612 the first edition of the Vocabolario dell'Accademia della Crusca, for Italian, was published. It served as the model for similar works in French 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 Española published the first edition of the Diccionario de la lengua española in 1780, but their Diccionario de Autoridades, which included quotes taken from literary works, was published in 1726. 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. Between 1862 and 1874 was published the six volumes of A magyar nyelv szótára (Dictionary of Hungarian Language) by Gergely Czuczor and János Fogarasi. 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. The decision to start work on the Svenska Akademiens ordbok was taken in 1787.
English dictionaries in Britain
The earliest dictionaries in the English language were glossaries of French, Spanish or Latin words along with their definitions in English. 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 1582.
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. This dictionary, and 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." 
In 1616, John Bullokar described the history of the dictionary with his "English Expositor". Glossographia by Thomas Blount, published in 1656, contains more than 10,000 words along with their etymologies or histories. Edward Phillips wrote another dictionary in 1658, entitled "The New World of English Words: Or a General Dictionary" which boldly plagiarized Blount's work, and the two denounced [clarification needed] each other. This created more interest in the dictionaries. John Wilkins' 1668 essay on philosophical language contains a list of 11,500 words with careful distinctions, compiled by William Lloyd.Elisha Coles published his "English Dictionary" in 1676.
It was not until Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that a more reliable English dictionary was produced. Many people today mistakenly believe that Johnson wrote the first English dictionary: 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 complete this 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 dictionary was an ex-army surgeon, William Chester Minor, a convicted murderer who was confined to an asylum for the criminally insane.
American English dictionaries
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 "center" 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.
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.
Main article: Specialized dictionary
According to the Manual of Specialized Lexicographies, a specialized dictionary, also referred to as a technical dictionary, is a dictionary 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 more specialized 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 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 and Yadgar Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms) 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 specialized field, such as medicine (medical 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 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. Most dictionaries of English now apply the descriptive method to a word's definition, and then, outside of the definition itself, and 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 stand (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."
Sometimes the same dictionary can be descriptive in some domains and prescriptive in others. For example, according to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, the Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary is "at war with itself": whereas its coverage (lexical items) and glosses (definitions) are descriptive and colloquial, its vocalization is prescriptive. This internal conflict results in absurd sentences such as hi taharóg otí kshetiré me asíti lamkhonít (she'll tear me apart when she sees what I've done to the car). Whereas hi taharóg otí, literally 'she will kill me', is colloquial, me (a variant of ma 'what') is archaic, resulting in a combination that is unutterable in real life.
A historical dictionary is a specific kind of descriptive dictionary which describes the development of words and senses over time, usually using citations to original source material to support its conclusions.
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 network (see Diathesis alternation). 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.
Further information: Machine-readable dictionary
Main articles: International Phonetic Alphabet chart for English dialects and Pronunciation respelling for English
In many languages, such as the English language, the pronunciation of some words is not apparent from their spelling. In these languages, dictionaries usually provide the pronunciation. For example, the definition for the word dictionary might be followed by the International Phonetic Alphabet spelling . American English dictionaries often use their own pronunciation respelling systems with diacritics, for example dictionary is respelled as "dĭk′shə-nĕr′ē" in the American Heritage Dictionary. The IPA is more commonly used within the British Commonwealth countries. Yet others use their own pronunciation respelling systems without diacritics: for example, dictionary may be respelled as DIK-shə-nerr-ee. Some online or electronic dictionaries provide audio recordings of words being spoken.
Major English dictionaries
Further information: Comparison of English dictionaries
Dictionaries of other languages
Histories and descriptions of the dictionaries of other languages include:
The age of the Internet brought online dictionaries to the desktop and, more recently, to the smart phone. David Skinner in 2013 noted that "Among the top ten lookups on Merriam-Webster Online at this moment are 'holistic, pragmatic, caveat, esoteric' and 'bourgeois.' Teaching users about words they don’t already know has been, historically, an aim of lexicography, and modern dictionaries do this well."
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:
Further information: List of online dictionaries
- Bergenholtz, Henning; Tarp, Sven, eds. (1995). Manual of Specialised Lexicography: The Preparation of Specialised Dictionaries. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-1612-6.
- Erdmann, Peter; Cho, See-Young. "A Brief History of English Lexicography". Technische Universität Berlin. Archived from the original on 9 March 2008. Retrieved 17 December 2010.
- Landau, Sidney I. (2001) . Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-78040-3.
- Nielsen, Sandro (1994). The Bilingual LSP Dictionary: Principles and Practice for Legal Language. Tübingeb: Gunter Narr. ISBN 3-8233-4533-8.
- Nielsen, Sandro (2008). "The Effect of Lexicographical Information Costs on Dictionary Making and Use". Lexikos. 18: 170–189. ISSN 1684-4904.
- Atkins, B.T.S. & Rundell, Michael (2008) The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-927771-1
- Winchester, Simon (1998). The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0-06-099486-X. (published in the UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne).
- P. G. J. van Sterkenburg, ed. (2003). A practical guide to lexicography. John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-58811-381-8.
- Guy Jean Forgue, "The Norm in American English," Revue Française d'Etudes Americaines, Nov 1983, Vol. 8 Issue 18, pp 451–461. An international appreciation of the importance of Webster's dictionaries in setting the norms of the English language.
- ^ abWebster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2002
- ^Nielsen, Sandro (2008). "The Effect of Lexicographical Information Costs on Dictionary Naming and Use". Lexikos. 18: 170–189. ISSN 1684-4904.
- ^A Practical Guide to Lexicography, Sterkenburg 2003, pp. 155–157
- ^ abA Practical Guide to Lexicography, Sterkenburg 2003, pp. 3–4
- ^A Practical Guide to Lexicography, Sterkenburg 2003, p. 7
- ^R. R. K. Hartmann (2003). Lexicography: Dictionaries, compilers, critics, and users. Routledge. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-415-25366-6.
- ^ abDictionary – MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
- ^Peter Bing (2003). "The unruly tongue: Philitas of Cos as scholar and poet". Classical Philology. 98 (4): 330–348. doi:10.1086/422370.
- ^Rashid, Omar. "Chasing Khusro". The Hindu. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- ^"Ḳāmūs", J. Eckmann, Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., Brill
- ^Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, edición integral e ilustrada de Ignacio Arellano y Rafael Zafra, Madrid, Iberoamericana-Vervuert, 2006, pg. XLIX.
- ^"OSA – Om svar anhålles". g3.spraakdata.gu.se. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
- ^Mark Forsyth. The etymologicon. // Icon Books Ltd. London N79DP, 2011. p. 128
- ^"1582 - Mulcaster's Elementarie". www.bl.uk. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
- ^A Brief History of English LexicographyArchived 2008-03-09 at the Wayback Machine., Peter Erdmann and See-Young Cho, Technische Universität Berlin, 1999.
- ^Jack Lynch, “How Johnson's Dictionary Became the First Dictionary” (delivered 25 August 2005 at the Johnson and the English Language conference, Birmingham) Retrieved July 12, 2008,
- ^John P. Considine (27 March 2008). Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage. Cambridge University Press. p. 298. ISBN 978-0-521-88674-1. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
- ^ ab"Lynch, "How Johnson's Dictionary Became the First Dictionary"". andromeda.rutgers.edu. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
- ^Simon Winchester, The Surgeon of Crowthorne.
- ^Times, The Sindh (24 February 2015). "The first English to Einglish and Sindhi Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms published - The Sindh Times". Retrieved 13 October 2017.
- ^Phil Benson (2002). Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary. Taylor & Francis. pp. 8–11.
- ^Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade; Wim van der Wurff (2009). Current Issues in Late Modern English. Peter Lang. pp. 41–42.
- ^Ned Halley, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English Grammar (2005), p. 84
- ^Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (1999). Review of the Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary, International Journal of Lexicography 12.4, pp. 325-346.
- ^"dictionary". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014.
- ^David Skinner, The Role of a Dictionary in "Opinionator: Exclusive Online Commentary from the Times", The New York Times, May 17, 2013.
When it happens I feel as if I have stepped into a Far Side cartoon. I am a magazine editor, and the galley of an article will come back from a proofreader with a low-frequency word circled and this comment in the margin: “Does this word even exist?” or “Is this a real word?”
Usually the word’s meaning is perfectly self-evident, and the word itself is relatively simple like “unbuyable,” if not deliberately goofy like “semi-idiotic-like.” And I think to myself, of course it exists. Look, there it is, right in front of us.
Sometimes the reader puts his or her suspicion differently and asks, “Is this word in the dictionary?” Having recently spent a large amount of time researching how a particularly well-known American dictionary was made, I have a very different notion of what a word’s presence, or even its absence, in a dictionary implies.
Don’t get me wrong: I like dictionaries, including several that I consult online and most of the 11 that are sitting within arm’s reach as I write this. But my recent affair with lexicography has left me certain of a couple of things.
One is that no dictionary contains every word in the language. Even an unabridged dictionary is, well, abridged. The sciences, medicine and technology generate gobs of words that never make it into a dictionary; numerous foreign words that appear in English-language contexts are left out. A great many words are invented all the time, whether for commercial reasons or to amuse one’s friends or to insult one’s enemies, and then they simply vanish from the record.
Another is that dictionary users and dictionary makers sometimes have very different notions of what a dictionary is for. One may think of it as a legal code for language; the other considers it a very partial report. One wants unambiguous answers about spelling and meaning and grammar and usage; the other aims for neutrality, and the more serious he or she is, the more wary the person is of imposing his or her own notions of good English on the language itself.
From online dictionaries we have learned that the most frequently looked-up words sit along the bookish fringe of everyday language. Among the top ten lookups on Merriam-Webster Online at this moment are holistic, pragmatic, caveat, esoteric and bourgeois. Teaching users about words they don’t already know has been, historically, a primary aim of lexicography, and modern dictionaries do this well.
But, say, you’re already a person of wide reading, and it’s rare that you require such help. And spell-check (despite its own problems with low-frequency words and proper names) is getting you past the usual pitfalls of silent letters, double consonants, indiscernible vowels and other orthographic peculiarities. Perhaps you write for a living. But occasionally, before committing to a word, you like to stop and commune with it, give it a look-over and see what the dictionary has to say about it.
The lexicographer, without a lot of space to work with, has reduced the word to what he takes to be its essential meanings. You ask yourself if the relevant sense matches your proposed use.
Of course, consulting dictionaries in this way is part of our intellectual and cultural training. It goes back to Language Arts homework (“use the word in a sentence”) and vocabulary tests. But the committed writer should be loath to substitute the lexicographer’s (no doubt well-informed but hardly infallible) sense of a word for his own. Not that you get to choose, according to your own whims, what words actually mean, but there is always much more to know about a word than what a dictionary can tell you. For example, to read in certain genres and areas is to see, on a regular basis, words used in ways that lexicographers must ignore or struggle to keep up with.
Dictionary publishers love to send out a press release when they’ve caught on to an important new term from social science or youth culture or technology or politics, which is all well and good, but in following Webster’s you’re following the followers. Language is profoundly conventional, so few of us can claim to be innovators, but the ambitious writer tries to avoid saying what has already been said. This is true for ad copy, political speeches, quality nonfiction and most other types of writing. Journalism, obviously, rests entirely on the claim to be delivering something new. And what is new should sound new, seem new and maybe require quotation marks, your copy editor thinks.
Lately I have been reading “Reporting: The Rolling Stone Style,” published in 1977, which collects feature essays from the magazine’s first 10 years. What strikes me about it is that the reporters do not sound like trade journalists circulating information within a community. Rather they sound like explorers returning from far-off lands, breathless with discovery. Their writing is for people in the know, yes, but to a much a greater degree it is for people who are not in the know.
“Don’t misunderstand, they aren’t your traditional Hilton rubes, this Pasadena burgher and the little woman, they have viewed with compassion the Louds and wouldn’t be caught dead in New York in madras shorts or cameras on straps like talismans, but this, this, it does give them pause and they freeze at the curb like Lot’s wives, hit full-face by the nightmare custard pie of it . . . .”
This was an opening sentence in an article by Tom Burke describing a gay pride parade from the point of view of two well-meaning out-of-towners. Few dictionaries would tell you what the writer means by Hilton, Pasadena, little woman, Louds, “this,”Lot’s wives or nightmare custard pie. Accounting for what words can add up to when writers explore and combine their obvious and non-obvious aspects is not what dictionaries do well or, in most cases, at all.
Early in my career as an editor I grew frustrated with what dictionaries could tell me about words and usage. An ideal dictionary would present an array of real-world examples, weighted somewhat to favor the professional over the amateur but also showing everyday usage alongside more literary examples drawn from books and movies and television and so on.
With the rise of serious online dictionaries, there are some that approach this ideal, including Wordnik and Merriam-Webster’s new unabridged version. They provide more raw information about words, enabling users to draw their own conclusions.
What a dictionary is for is rarely what a writer needs: basic help in using individual words. Of course, when a writer needs such help it is critical that he or she gets it. Only it should be kept in mind that good writing may exceed the boundaries suggested, if not intended, by dictionary definitions. As one lexicographer put it, “Nothing worth writing is written from a dictionary.”
David Skinner is the author of “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” He is the editor of Humanities magazine, a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary and a contributor to The Weekly Standard.
Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.