Week 3: Dictionaries and Encyclopedias


Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

The word "dictionarius", meaning , "a collection of words", was first used in the English language around 1225. In the seventeenth century, the name,"dictionary" was gradually given to works explaining English words in English. The first general and comprehensive dictionary of the English language was the "Universal Etymological English Dictionary" by Nathan Bailey, published in 1721, which gave pronunciation and authority for pronounciation, but only very brief definitions.

"Ambrogio Calepino's 1502 dictionary was the bestselling reference work of the early modern era, having appeared in more than 200 editions by 1800, as editors and publishers expanded its Latin entries to transform it into the ultimate polyglot experience, a key for all languages rather than just one... Calepino has the distinction of being the only author of a reference work to have his name become a noun. ("Calepin" is by now an obsolete word for a dictionary)" (Findlen, 36).

Samuel Johnson's "Dictionary of the English Language", which appeared in 1755 was designed to list all "good" words in the language with their "proper" meanings. "Johnson... once declared, with characteristic wit, that the making of dictionaries was "dull work." He nonetheless produced a dictionary of great verve that others rightfully regarded as a work of literature produced from the reading of literature" (Findlen, 36-37).

The English dictionary today is a collection of words in which each word is treated as to pronunciation, derivation, usage, meaning and syllabication. In addition, the dictionary may also give synonyms, antonyms, illustrative quotations, maps and plates, biographical facts, and geographical and historical information.

Because most dictionaries are arranged alphabetically for convenience of reference, the word "dictionary" has come to mean any alphabetical arrangement of words or topics. (Zenodotos, the first librarian at Alexandria [circa 280 BC], first introduced the common use of alphabetization in the organization of books and of materials within books. He only alphabetized by the first letter(Greenblatt, 88).)

There are dictionaries of psychology, education, philosophy, music, mathematics and many other subjects, as well as dictionaries of dates, events, battles, plants and sports. The primary purpose of a dictionary is to answer questions about words. The user must learn the kinds of dictionaries and the characteristics of each kind, in order to decide which one or ones will answer a given question in the best way.

In judging the usefulness of a dictionary, consider these points:

1. What part of the language does the dictionary include? Slang, dialect, obsolete and technical words, as well as standard words?

2. What period of the language does it cover?

3. Is usage indicated?

4. Are plurals, verb tenses and participles spelled?

5. Is syllabication indicated?

6. In what way is pronunciation shown? If diacritical marks are used, are they explained?

7. Are the definitions clear?

8. Are the definitions given in order of historical or current usage?

9. Is the etymology of the word given? (What does etymology mean?)

10. Is illustrative material--quotations, maps, pictures, charts--used? If so, is it adequate and appropriate?

11. Does it give synonyms and antonyms, and are they explained?

12. Are abbreviations and symbols explained?

13. Is encyclopedic information--such as geographical, biographical and historical facts, included?

14. Is the dictionary easy to use?

15. How does it compare with other dictionaries on each of these points?

Dictionaries can be dividied into (1) general word dictionaries, which provide overall information such as pronunciation, derivation, syllabication and meaning, (2)dictionaries which have to do with certain aspects of language, such as etymology, synonyms, antonyms, slang, colloquialisms, dialect and usage, and (3) dictionaries which are concerned with a specific subject area.

General word dictionaries are either unabridged, that is, complete, covering all the words of a language, abridged, that is, reduced in content but retaining the features of the unabridged work or general-purpose desk dictionaries, which include only a selection of the words of a language. They include both English-language and foreign-language dictionaries.

Be sure to look up any words in this discussion which you do not already know.



In the Discussions, Name 4 good unabridged dictionaries, 4 good abridged dictionaries and 4 good desk dictionaries. Give some reasons why you think they are good dictionaries.


Dictionary Review

In the Discussions area, Answer the following 7 questions:

1. What is the basic purpose of a dictionary?

2. List the kinds of information about words a dictionary should provide.

3. What other kinds of information do some dictionaries give?

4. Explain unabridged and abridged dictionaries.

5. Compare two dictionaries on the basis of the ways in which they provide the information you listed as an answer to question 2.

6. Look up a given word in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When did it enter the English language? How many definitions are given? How many illustrative quotations are given? How many synonyms and/or antonyms are given? Use this word in a sentence. (Don't try this online; they are charging now. If you don't have a library handy, skip this question.)



Explore the following links:

Merriam-Webster Online

Internet Public Library

Roget's Thesaurus



Encyclopedias are an excellent place to begin research. They offer:

Some examples of general encyclopedias are:

A "special encyclopedia" provides more detailed information in its subject area than a general encyclopedia. Although some subject encyclopedias are called, "dictionaries", they contain far more information than the short, concise, factual entries usually found in dictionaries. A few subject encyclopedias are listed below:


"When I was in high school and needed to look up something I didn't know, I went to the public library and dared to forage among the pages of the most authoritative reference work available: the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can't remember which edition it was, but I opened it with the unshaken certainty that experts had distilled vast quantities of useful knowledge for my edification... just the right amount of almost everything, or something about something" (Findlen, 34)... the seemingly exhaustive reference work it would become by the early twentieth century... the contemporary edition we know today--thirty-two volumes filled with approximately 40 million words on almost half a million subjects" (Findlen, 35).

Where did the mania for print compendiums begin? The original "British Encyclopedia" was the brainchild of two ambitious Edinburgh publishers, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who employed a printer and aspiring naturalist turned writer, William Smellie, to compose--or as Smellie later reported, compile "with a pair of scissors"--the entries for the first edition of 1768-71. Their goal was to create an indelibly Scottish product to compete with that most learned and controversial manifesto of the French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert's twenty-eight-volume Encyclopédie (1751-72). Macfarquhar and Bell's hastily assembled three-volume set was no hardy tree of knowledge but a mere sapling whose fruit was blemished by the errors "mental, typographical, or accidental," that were the bane of all encyclopedias and their makers" (Findlen, 35).

"...the contemporary misperception, born of narcissism and ignorance, that the "information age"--a term dating to 1962--is a new phenomenon. Humans have been accumulating knowledge and finding ways to condense, sort and store it ever since it was understood that knowledge could exceed the limits of memory and oral transmission" (Findlen, 35).

"Consider the ancient bibliographer Callimachus, whose Pinakes contained a summary of the fabled contents of the ancient Library of Alexandria. He merits special recognition as editor in chief of the Hellenistic world's Encyclopedia Britannica, just as the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder deserves praise for creating a compendium of Roman knowledge filled, so he boasted, with information about 20,000 things worth knowing and outfitted with a rudimentary table of contents to assist readers in finding those facts of greatest interest. By the tenth century enterprising scholars in Byzantium, the Islamic world and China were furiously trying to compile and summarize everything their respective civilizations produced. Entries multiplied rapidly, and bibliographies ballooned to immodest proportions as diligent compilers such as the Baghdad bookseller Ibn al-Nadim did their best to insert in their compendiums a reference to anyone who had ever written something worth remembering" (Findlen, 35-6).

"In the tenth century an encyclopedia of Chinese learning and wisdom contained a thousand chapters. By the fifteenth century the comprehensive encyclopedia created for the Ming emperor by 2,000 court officials had grown to almost 23,000 chapters. Not to be outdone, the Manchu emperor commissioned an even more definitive encyclopedia of Chinese knowledge, the Siku Quanshu, which was compiled between 1773 and 1782. Its sheer bulk puts to rest any Western fantasies of superior information management. Around 3,800 scribes employed thir calligrapher's brushes to create seven copies of the 79,000-chapter tome of tomes. Containing 800 million words, it was far larger than the modern Encyclopedia Britannica and OED [Oxford English Dictionary] combined, making it the definition of a truly unreadable book.One of the few reference works to surpass it in terms of volume is Wikipedia, which now contains around 2 billion words" (Findlen, 36).

"Among the most ambitious Renaissance encyclopedias was Theodor Zwinger's vast and vastly erudite Theater of Human Life, published in 1565, which amassed a level of comprehensive knowledge that astounded even Zwinger's contemporaries, who watched the book expand to 4,500 pages as the Basel physician digested everything he encountered in print. Like other Renaissance encyclopedias, Zwinger's contained multiple indexes to facilitate looking up every discrete parcel of knowledge through an elaborate sequence of headings and subheadings that outlined, as if in bullet points, the structure of knowledge while also dissecting it thematically. Little wonder that by the eighteenth century Jonathan Swift would poke fun at contemporaries who displayed a veneer of erudition acquired through "index learning"" (Findlen, 36).

"... knowledge had become a business by the end of the Renaissance. There were many people poised to offer the surest and most efficient path to success--with a book in hand" (Findlen, 37).



Answer the following questions in the Discussions area, using an encyclopedia to find the answers:

1. What two bodies of water are linked by the New York State Barge Canal?

2. What are the names of the provinces in the Netherlands?

3. Can you find a list of dates important to the westward movement in the United States?

4. Who were the Industrial Workers of the World?

5. Where and when did checkers begin?

6. You are interested in becoming a lawyer. Find some information about what lawyers do and what training they need.

7. What was Babe Ruth's real name?

8. What is the state flower of Mississippi?

9. When was the Battle of Chippewa fought?

10. When did Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin?

11. Where is James Polk buried?


Encyclopedia Links

Please explore the following link:




Findlen, Paula. "Before the Flood." A book review of Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, by Ann M. Blair. The Nation, May 2, 2011, pp. 34-37.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. NY: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Don't forget to take the quiz. (Go to Canvas in ACES.)

Colby Glass, MLIS, Professor Emeritus