In honor of Dictionary Day, I looked at how the word dictionary was defined in in eight references published over a span of 79 years. Much to my surprise, the definition of the term has remained remarkably steady over the years, although they do seem to grow larger as time progresses.
Webster’s School and Office Dictionary (1914)
Dictionary. A book containing the words of a language arranged alphabetically, with their meanings; a work explaining the terms of any subject under heads alphabetically arranged.
National Dictionary (1940)
Dictionary. A book containing all, or the principal, words in a language, with phonetics indicative of the sound of each, followed by definitions and other explanatory matter. See lexicon. [Late Latin]
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966)
Dictionary. [Middle Latin dictionaries < Latin dictio] 1. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language, with definitions, etymologies, pronunciation, and other information; lexicon: a dictionary is a record of generally accepted meanings, acquired up to the time o its publication. 2. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language with their equivalents in another language: as a Spanish-English dictionary. 3. Any alphabetically arranged list of words or articles relating to a special subject: as, a medical dictionary.
Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966)
Dictionary. 1. A book containing a selection of the words of a language, usually arranged alphabetically, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, etc., expressed in either the same or another language; lexicon; glossary: a dictionary of English; a french-English dictionary. 2. a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names, or facts usually arranged alphabetically: a biographical dictionary; a dictionary of mathematics [< ML dictionarium, lit., a wordbook < LL, dictio – word (see diction) + arium -ary]
American Heritage Dictionary (1969)
Dictionary. 1. A reference book containing an explanatory alphabetical list of words, as: a. a book listing a comprehensive or restricted selection of the words of a language, identifying usually the phonetic, grammatical, and semantic value of each word, often with etymology , citations, and usage guidance, and other information. b. Such a book listing the words of a particular category within a language. 2. A book listing the words of a language with transitions into another language. 3. A book listing words or other linguistic items, with specialized information about them: a medical dictionary [Medieval Latin dictionaries, from latin dicta, Diction]
Webster’s Dictionary (1971)
Dictionary [Latin: dicere, to say] A book containing, alphabetically arranged, the words of a language, their meanings, and etymology; a lexicon
World Book Dictionary (1989)
Dictionary. 1. A book that explains the words of a language, or some special kinds of words. it is usually arranged alphabetically. One can use a dictionary to find out the meaning, pronunciation, or spelling of a word. A medical dictionary explains words used in medicine. A German-English dictionary translates German words into English. A dictionary of biography has accounts of people’s lives arranged in alphabetical order of their names. From the time of [Samuel] Johnson on, the dictionary has been a conservative and standardizing agency from the spelling of the language as well as for its other aspects. Syn: lexicon. 2. a book of information or reference n any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged in some stated order, often alphabetical: a dictionary of folklore, a Dictionary of the Bible. 3. Figurative. any repository of knowledge or information: Life is our dictionary (Emerson). Abbr: dict. [Medieval Latin dictionaries < Latin dictio]
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993)
Dictionary [Middle Latin dictionaries, Late Latin diction– dicta word + latin -arium – ary] 1: a reference book containing words usu. alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses < a general ~ of the English language> <a monolingual ~>–compare vocabulary entry 2a: a reference book listing terms of names important to a particular subject or activity along with discussion of their meanings and applications <a law~> <a~of sports>; broadly: an encyclopedic listing <a~of dates> c: a reference book listing terms as commonly spelled together with their equivalents in some specialized system (as of orthography or symbols) <a~of shorthand> <a pronouncing ~> 3a: a general comprehensive list, collection, or repository <a ~ of biography> <a usage ~> b. vocabulary in use (as in a special field): terminology <the ~ of literary criticism> c: a vocabulary of accepted terms <in the ~ of the French Academy> d: a vocabulary of the written words used by one author <systematic dictionaries of individual authors> e: lexicon
On one hand, the similarity among the definitions seems strange, as it’s hard to believe that there haven’t been new ideas about the dictionary in nearly 80 years. On the other, the constancy of the definitions mirrors the history of dictionary making itself. As E.L. McAdam and George Milne write in their introduction to Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection, “All lexicographers use earlier dictionaries, if only to avoid the danger of omitting some words by inadvertence.” Could that be the reason for the similarity?
I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know, however, is that dictionaries are so much more than just their definitions. The are friends … or at least “agreeable companions.”
To many people a dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status. — American Heritage Dictionary
I concur! And with that, I wish you a Happy Dictionary Day!
To see more examples of all the awesome information available in dictionaries of all types, poke around this site! Don’t know where to start? Look at the list of previous posts or the tag cloud on the right side of the page.