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''for other uses of "dictionary", see dictionary (disambiguation)

A dictionary is a list of words with their definitions, a list of characters with its glyph 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.

Table of contents
1 Word order
2 Coverage
3 Special-purpose dictionaries
4 Variations between dictionaries
5 History
6 Miscellanea
7 List of major dictionaries
8 List of online dictionaries
9 List of collaborative dictionaries
10 Further reading
11 Related articles

Word order

Dictionaries of alphabetic languages list words in alphabetical order. With non-alphabetic languages, it may be different. The order in a dictionary with ideographic entries such as Chinese character is often troublesome and controversial because each character has different readings. Collation systems for logographs do exist. In Japanese and Korean, words containing Chinese characters (called Kanji in Japanese and Hanja in Korean) can be spelled in Hiragana and Hangul respectively, and so are inserted in their proper alphabetical order in dictionaries, alongside words not derived from Chinese characters. Furthermore, in entries for words derived from characters, the main entry words are spelled in Hiragana (for Japanese dictionaries) and Hangul (for Korean dictionaries), with the Chinese characters inserted in parentheses after each entry word.


Some dictionaries contain more entry words than others in their word lists. 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 different types of dictionaries, including bilingual, multilingual, historical, biographical, and geographical dictionaries.

Bilingual dictionaries

In bilingual dictionaries, each entry has translations of words in other language. For example, in a Japanese-English dictionary, the entry tsuki has the corresponding English word, moon. In dictionaries between a language using a non-Roman script and English, 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 (lit Han-Japanese dictionary) in Japanese and Okpyeon (literally, "Jewel Book") in Korean. Each entry has one Chinese character with the description about strokess, reading 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

Dictionaries come in two basic philosophies, prescriptive and descriptive. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is descriptive, and attempts to describe actual usage. Noah Webster, on the other hand, who was intent on forging a distinct identity for the American language changed the meanings and pronunciation of numerous words. This is the reason that American English has the spelling "color" while British English has the spelling "colour". (See American and British English differences.)

Most modern dictionaries are descriptive, although many, such as the American Heritage dictionaries make extensive efforts to provide information on the best usage, and almost all dictionaries provide some information on words considered erroneous, vulgar, or easily confused. In any case, in the long run, usage alone determines the meaning of words, although dictionaries provide conservative continuity, even the most descriptive.

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 minumum.


The art and craft of writing dictionaries is called lexicography. The first true English dictionary was the Table Alphabeticall of 1606, although it only included 3,000 words. 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 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




List of online dictionaries

[List should be shortened]

  1. Online versions of printed dictionaries
  2. Online-only general dictionaries
  3. Dictionary Collections
  4. Specialty Dictionaries
  5. Multilingual Dictionaries
  6. Downloadable Dictionaries
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 GNU Collaborative International Dictionary of English (GCIDE). This dictionary uses Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) and WordNet as its sources and is being developed collaboratively under the terms of the GNU General Public License. It describes itself as "a freely-available set of ASCII files containing the marked-up text of a substantial English dictionary". Other collaborative dictionary projects:

See also: DICT, the dictionary server protocol

Further reading

Related articles