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Our modern age has dictionaries of all kinds and sizes.

Part 1 of 2
Go to part 2 of dictionaries.

There are more and more books being printed all the time; but among the most important are the references we call dictionaries and/or lexicons

Here are just a few samples of dictionary/lexicon titles that show the extent of dictionary specializations:

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary
• On line new and updated databases.
• Includes headwords, definitions, and etymologies.

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
• New Eleventh Edition
• Includes 225,000 definitions and more than 700 illustrations.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
• New Fifth Edition
• Derived from a complex, highly versatile structured database.
• Considerable attention is devoted to the history of words.

Oxford English Dictionary
• Actual size is 20 volumes, 21,730 pages.
• Number of words in entire text is 59 million.

Encarta World English Dictionary
• Compiled by over 320 scholars in 20 nations, working simultaneously for almost three years.
• This “first-time partnership among global scholars is, for North Americans, a comprehensive record of English—but one with a world view.”

Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary
• Medical terms with extensive definitions.
• Etymologies of words with many illustrations.

Stedman’s Medical Dictionary
• A comprehensive, current, and medical lexicon for medical and health professionals.
• Critically reviewed and revised by consultants representing 52 medical specialities.

Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary
• Offers 55,000 entries for nursing and allied health services.
• Encyclopedic entries offer detailed explanations of important concepts.

Psychiatric Dictionary
• Records words that are used in the field of psychiatry to keep pace with its new developments.
• Strives to make each definition comprehensible not only to those active in the behavioral sciences but also to readers whose primary work, training, or major interest is not in the area being defined.

The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology
• Presents recordings of the roots of English and shows their many points of contact with other cultures from which they have absorbed new words and new ideas.
• Aim has been to make examples of the development of English an understandable subject for those with no specialized knowledge of language study.

A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language
• Dealing with the origins of words and their sense developments thus illustrating the history of civilization and culture.
• “Since my youth I have devoted myself to philology, with special regard to etymology.” —Dr. Ernest Klein, compiler of this two-volume dictionary.

International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology, in Three Volumes
• Contains more than 151 000 terms and more than 159 000 definitions.
• Eighty-one advisory editors, 10 co-advisory editors, and 90 contributors wrote the definitions for 70 different subjects.

Dictionary of Plant Virology
• Common names of plant viroids of higher plants.
• Order of diseases according to contemporary scientific names of the most important host plant.

Dictionary of Edible Mushrooms
• Botanical and common names in various languages of the world.
• For amateur mushroom hunters and growers.

Dictionary of Wild and Cultivated plants
• Scientific names of wild and cultivated plants found in Europe.
• Multilingual dictionary.

Dictionary of Geosciences
• Terms used in geochemistry and physical chemistry, geology and tectonics, meteorology, et al.
• Bilingual Russian-English dictionary.

Dictionary of Aquaculture
• Terms related to the various types of aquaculture; such as, hatchery, nursery, and growout production for fish culture, crustacean and mollusc culture, algal culture, reptile culture, amphibian culture, and echinoderm culture.
• Includes terms for pathology, prophylaxis, breeding, nutrition, genetics, hydrology, engineering, marketing, biology, systems behavior, chemicals, and water chemistry.


The word “dictionary” came to us from other languages.

The modern term “dictionary” comes to us from Latin dictionarium through French dictionnaire which properly means “a book of sayings”. There is a synonym for the word dictionary which comes from Greek, known as a lexicon; and guess what, it literally means a “book of words”. The term most often used by Europeans is lexicon; while most Americans seem to prefer the word dictionary when they want a book of words with definitions. Also, lexicography refers to the act or process of making a dictionary. What we have here are two words for our modern age: dictionary and lexicon; with both of them meaning the same thing, but one is more commonly used in certain geographical areas than the other.

The earliest dictionaries were very limited in scope

The earliest lexicographers were monks, men who lived in religious brotherhoods. During the seventh century, before the printing press was invented, these monks worked in church libraries making notes in the margins of their hand-lettered books. In those days, all books were written in Latin which was the language used in the Roman Catholic Church and in universities. The common people — farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, children — had no books of their own. In fact, it is very unlikely that they could even read because education was limited to very few people. Why did monks mark up the pages of their hand-made books? It seems the better educated monks who wrote the books wanted to make sure other monks who read the books would know what certain words meant. The notes came to be called glosses, from which we get our word glossary — a list of words with definitions. For a thousand years, these glosses stayed in the books in church libraries. No one did anything with them. The term “dictionary,” in one of its Latin forms (dictionarius or dictionarium, a collection of words), was used c. 1225 by an English scholar, John Garland, as the title for a manuscript of Latin words to be learned by memory. The words were not arranged in alphabetical order but in groups according to subject. This dictionarius, was used only for the teacher’s classroom work in teaching Latin, and it contained no English except for a few interlined glosses (translations of single words). In the seventeenth century, some monks got the idea of making lists of those Latin glosses and translating them into English. The first dictionary, or glossary, was actually a list of Latin-English glosses. Monks in other countries also compiled Latin-French, Latin-Italian, and Latin-Spanish glossaries. Later in 1604, Robert Cawdrey, an English schoolmaster, published a dictionary, titled A Table Alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usual English Wordes …with the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Although his dictionary included only difficult words, there is one principle of dictionary making that Cawdrey is remembered for today: he listed words in alphabetical order. Cawdrey, perhaps recalling the complicated groupings of words in some earlier dictionaries, stressed the importance of the word “alphabeticall” in his title. Apparently some “unskilfull persons” in his day (as in ours) had not taken the trouble to learn their ABC’s; so, he said, “Thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand.”


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