From Academic Kids

A dictionary is a list of words with their definitions, a list of characters with their glyphs, or a list of words with corresponding words in other languages. Many dictionaries also provide pronunciation information, word derivations, histories, or etymologies, illustrations, usage guidance, and examples in sentences. Dictionaries are most commonly found in the form of a book.


Word order

Dictionaries of languages with alphabetic and syllabic writing systems list words in alphabetical or some analogous phonetic order. Words and characters in ideographic writing systems such as Chinese are sorted according to one of numerous schemes based on the components, number of strokes, overall shape, or pronunciation of each character. Due to the nature of Chinese characters, linear sorts are particular unsuitable for Chinese dictionaries. (See collation for more information on linguistic sorting).


Dictionaries vary wildly in size and scope. A dictionary that attempts to cover as many words from a particular speech community as possible is called a maximizing dictionary (e.g. the Oxford English Dictionary), whereas a dictionary that attempts to cover only a limited selection of words from a speech community is called a minimizing dictionary (e.g. a dictionary containing the 2000 most frequently used words in the English language).

Special-purpose dictionaries

There are many different types of dictionaries, including bilingual, multilingual, historical, biographical, and geographical dictionaries.

Bilingual dictionaries

In bilingual dictionaries, each entry has translations of words in another language. For example, in a Japanese-English dictionary, the entry tsuki has the corresponding English word, moon. In dictionaries between English and a language using a non-Roman script, entry words in the non-English language may either be printed and sorted in the native order, or romanized and sorted in Roman alphabetical order.

Specialized dictionaries

Specialized dictionaries (also referred to as technical dictionaries) focus on linguistic and factual matters relating to specific subject fields. A specialized dictionary may have a relatively broad coverage, in that it covers several subject fields such as science and technology (a multi-field dictionary), or their coverage may be more narrow, in that they cover one particular subject field such as law (a single-field dictionary) or even a specific sub-field such as contract law (a sub-field dictionary). Specialized dictionaries may be maximizing dictionaries, i.e. they attempt to achieve comprehensive coverage of the terms in the subject field concerned, or they may be minimizing dictionaries, i.e. they attempt to cover only a limited number of the specialized vocabulary concerned. Generally, multi-field dictionaries tend to be minimizing, whereas single-field and sub-field dictionaries tend to be maximizing. See also LSP dictionary.

Character dictionaries

In East Asian languages, a dictionary specialized in Han (Chinese) characters has developed, called Kan-wa jiten (literally 'Han-Japanese dictionary') in Japanese and Okpyeon ('Jewel Book') in Korean. Each entry has one Chinese character with information about stroke count and order, readings (pronunciations), and a list of words using that character.


Another variant is the glossary, an alphabetical list of defined terms in a specialized field, such as medicine or science. 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.

Variations between dictionaries

Prescription and description

Dictionary makers apply two basic philosophies to the defining of words: prescriptive or descriptive. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is descriptive, and attempts to describe the actual use of words. Noah Webster, on the other hand, intent on forging a distinct identity for the American language, altered spellings and accentuated differences in meaning and pronunciation of numerous words. This is why American English now uses the spelling "color" while British English uses "colour". (See American and British English differences.) Many of his prescriptions did not take hold because they were not adopted by the general public.

While descriptivists would charge that prescriptivism is an unnatural attempt to dictate usage or curtail change, prescriptivists would argue that to document, without judgment, usages which they consider improper or inferior sanctions those usages by default, causing the language to deteriorate in practice. Although much is made of these differing views, they usually apply to a very small number of controversial words, while not affecting the vast majority for which there is common agreement. But the softening of usage notations, from the previous edition, for two words, ain't and irregardless, out of over 450,000 in Webster's Third in 1961, was enough to provoke outrage among many with prescriptivist leanings, who branded the dictionary as, "permissive."

The prescriptive/descriptive issue has been given so much consideration in modern times that most dictionaries of English apply the descriptive method to definitions, while additionally informing readers of 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 nonstand (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, and often compromises the strict definition of words by incorporating judgmental interpretations into definitions themselves, such as, "an offensive term for..." or "a taboo term meaning..."

Because of the broad use of dictionaries, and their acceptance by many as language authorities, their treatment of the language does affect usage to some degree, even the most descriptive dictionaries providing conservative continuity. In the long run, however, usage primarily determines the meanings of words in English, 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."

Other variations

Since words and their meanings develop over time, dictionary entries are organized to reflect these changes. Dictionaries may either list meanings in the historical order in which they appeared, or may list meanings in order of popularity and most common use.

Dictionaries also differ in the degree to which they are encyclopedic, providing considerable background information, illustrations, and the like, or linguistic, concentrating on etymology, nuances of meaning, and quotations demonstrating usage.

Any dictionary has been designed to fulfil one or more functions. The dictionary functions chosen by the maker(s) of the dictionary provide the basis for all lexicographic decisions, from the selection of entry words, over the choice of information types, to the choice of place for the information (e.g. in an article or in an appendix). There are two main types of function. The communication-oriented functions comprise text reception (understanding), text production, text revision, and translation. The knowledge-oriented functions deal with situations where the dictionary is used for acquiring specific knowledge about a particular matter, and for acquiring general knowledge about something. The optimal dictionary is one that contains information directly relevant for the needs of the users relating to one or more of these functions. It is important that the information is presented in a way that keeps the lexicographic information costs at a minimum.


The art and craft of writing dictionaries is called lexicography.

One of the earliest dictionaries known, and which is still extant today in an abridged form, is one written in Latin during the reign of the emperor Augustus. It is known by the title "De Significatu Verborum" ("On the meaning of words") and was originally compiled by Verrius Flaccus. It was twice abridged in succeeding centuries, first by Festus, and then by Paul the Deacon. Verrius Flaccus' dictionary was an abridged list of difficult or antiquated words, whose usage was illustrated by quotations from early Roman authors.

The first true English dictionary was the Table Alphabeticall of 1606, although it only included 3,000 words and the definitions it contained were little more than synonyms. The first one to be at all comprehensive was Thomas Blount's dictionary Glossographia of 1656. This was followed by Samuel Johnson's famous and more complete dictionary of 1755.

Noah Webster's dictionary was published by the G&C Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts which still publishes Merriam-Webster dictionaries, but the term Webster's is considered generic and can be used by any dictionary.

The most complete dictionary of the English language is the Oxford English Dictionary. The first edition was properly begun in 1860 and wasn't completed until 1928, by which time a supplement that took an additional five years to complete was already necessary.


The Irish mathematical physicist, J. L. Synge, created a game, Game of Circ, to emphasize the circular reasoning implicit in the defining process of any standard dictionary.

List of major dictionaries








Brazilian Portuguese



List of online dictionaries

  1. Online versions of printed dictionaries
  2. Online-only general dictionaries
    • Double-Tongued Word Wrester (http://www.doubletongued.org) A dictionary of new and old words from the fringes of English, professionally collected, researched, and defined. Includes slang, argot, jargon, and colloquialisms.
    • Netordbogen (http://www.dendanskenetordbog.dk/netdob/)
    • Picture Dictionary (http://www.giantpicturedictionary.com/) Online Picture Dictionary with search function. Uses pictures and symbols from Universal Picture Language. Grasp the meaning of a word with just a glance at its representative picture.
    • Open Dictionary (http://open-dictionary.com/) Offers various definitions, translations and pronunciations in many languages (uses Wiktionary and WordNet for most of its entries).
    • WordWebOnline.com (http://www.wordwebonline.com) A dictionary/thesaurus and meta-search (also available as a free download (http://wordweb.info/free/))
    • TheFreeDictionary.com (http://www.thefreedictionary.com) A dictionary, a thesaurus, a literature reference library, and a search engine all in one.
    • hyperdictionary.com (http://www.hyperdictionary.com) One of the more comprehensive online dictionaries.
    • eLook Dictionary (http://www.elook.org/dictionary/) A dictionary with synonyms, antonyms, and related words.
    • www.webster-dictionary.org A dictionary and a thesaurus. A republisher of existing Internet dictionaries. Appears to be an attempt at a portal site.
    • Dictionary.com (http://www.dictionary.com) A dictionary and thesaurus and other language aids.
    • Dictionary Definition (http://www.dictionarydefinition.net/)
    • English dictionary (http://www.english-dictionary.us/) Fast and simple English dictionary with US and UK spellings.
    • ObjectGraph.com (http://www.objectgraph.com/dictionary) Suggestive dictionary, Suggests words as you type.
  3. Dictionary Collections
    • Dictionaries listed on DMOZ (http://dmoz.org/Reference/Dictionaries/)
    • HavenWorks (http://www.HavenWorks.com/dictionary)
    • OneLook (http://www.onelook.com) Searches almost 1000 online dictionaries for more than 6 million indexed words.
    • Dictionary (http://www.dictionary.info)
    • Yourdictionary.com (http://www.yourdictionary.com) Large list of online dictionaries.
    • Majstro's dictionary database (http://www.majstro.com/Web/Majstro/wboek_zoek.php?gebrTaal=eng&bronTaal=eng&doelTaal=eng) Dictionary search
    • xrefer (http://www.xrefer.com) Offers access to dictionaries and other reference works. Pay site.
  4. Specialty Dictionaries
    • Dictionary of One-Letter Words (http://www.blueray.com/dictionary/) Over 700 definitions for the 26 letters of the English alphabet, including literary examples of usage.
    • e-DICT (http://www.dict.pl) English-Polish, Polish-English dictionary
    • DeP (http://www.dep.pl) German-Polish, Polish-German dictionary
    • Danish-English Law Dictionary (http://www.sprog.asb.dk/sn/cisg/) The only on-line dictionary covering Danish and English legal language.
    • Danish-English Accounting Dictionary (http://netdob.asb.dk/iasdkgb/) The authoritative dictionary on Danish and English accouting terminology with collocations and phrases.
    • The Early Modern English Dictionaries Database (http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/english/emed/emedd.html) A collection of the earliest English language dictionaries.
    • Pseudodictionary (http://www.pseudodictionary.com) A collection of slang, colloquialisms, and humorous fake and made-up words. Accepts new entries.
    • The Skeptic's Dictionary (http://skepdic.com/) Dictionary taking a cynical view on new age and occult words.
  5. Multilingual Dictionaries
  6. Downloadable Dictionaries
    • Online Plain Text English Dictionary (http://msowww.anu.edu.au/~ralph/OPTED/index.html) – based on the Gutenberg Webster's Abridged Dictionary
    • The Gutenberg Webster's Abridged Dictionary (http://www.gutenberg.net/cgi-bin/search/t9.cgi?author=&title=webster%27s+abridged&subject=&ntes=&whole=yes&language=&filetype=&class_lc=) – In parts. First 200 pages available without copyrights, rest available.
    • WordWeb (http://wordweb.info/free/) Free international English dictionary for Windows (Pro version also available)
    • iFinger: FREE Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary (http://www.ifinger.com/shop/productpresentation.asp?pID=44) Free registration is required after clicking on DOWNLOAD. The dictionary is accessed through a Windows-compatible iFinger interface (included in the download) that integrates with web browsers and other products.

The DICT protocol is a client/server model for dictionaries. Many free dictionaries are appearing in the dict format.

List of collaborative dictionaries

An open content dictionary project is the Collaborative International Dictionary of English, using Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) and WordNet as its sources. The GNU version of it, GCIDE, is being developed collaboratively under the terms of the GNU General Public License.

Other collaborative dictionary projects:

  • Papillon Multilingual Dictionary with a Pivot Structure [1] (http://www.papillon-dictionary.org)
  • EDICT Digital Japanese-English dictionary. [2] (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/edict.html)
  • Everything2 Contains, among other things, an entire Webster 1913 dictionary
  • freedict Bilingual dictionaries, released under the GPL
  • PseudoDictionary New coinages and unusual words, mostly slang
  • Reading Tutor (http://akira.arts.kuleuven.ac.be/waran/tools_e.html) - Digital multilingual dictionary: Japanese-Japanese, Japanese-English, Japanese-German, Japanese-Dutch
  • Free Online Dictionary (http://www.1st-dictionary.com) Easy to use dictionary, containing over 170,000 terms and definitions, and also a large thesaurus with related words for each term
  • Urban Dictionary Slang dictionary
  • Wiktionary A sister project of the well-known collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia

See also


  • Manual of Specialised Lexicography, Henning Bergenholtz/Sven Tarp (eds.), Benjamins Publishing, 1995
  • The Bilingual LSP Dictionary, Sandro Nielsen, Gunter Narr Verlag 1994
  • Dictionaries, The Art and Craft of Lexicography, Sidney I. Landau, Simon & Schuster, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 0684180960
  • The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, HarperPerennial, New York, 1998, trade paperback, ISBN 0-06-017596-6. (published in the UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne)

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