The first same language dictionary in English was that of Samuel Johnson which appeared in 1755. The first dictionary of note in American English was put out by Noah Webster in 1828. Most of the differences in spelling between British and American English goes back to these two dictionaries.
The English dictionary now with the greatest authority is the “Oxford English Dictionary” (OED).
A good dictionary tells you four things about each word:
- spelling: how to write it
- pronunciation: how to say it
- definition: what it means
- etymology: where it came from
The OED will even tell you when it was first used in a certain sense and give you an example of it.
The OED not only has current words, but also words that have fallen out of use.
A good dictionary will have at least 35,000 words – more words than even someone with a good education would know. The OED has over 300,000.
You would think the definition of a word is given by yet simpler words. Not so. You only see that in dictionaries for foreigners and schoolchildren, like Longman’s. Most
dictionaries have definitions that go round in circles (as I found out as a child who read dictionaries). It assumes that you already know about 15,000 words.
To make a dictionary:
- Draw up a list of words that will appear in it.
- Gather examples of each word from books, newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
- Write the definitions that will cover the
examples you have found. Write one definition for each sense it has.
While looking for these examples, you will come across yet other words you will want to add to your dictionary. And so on.
Gathering these examples used to be done by readers armed with note cards. That is how the OED was first made. Now it is done by computers processing millions of words.
One of the first dictionaries to use a computer was the “American Heritage Dictionary” of 1968. It used the one million words of the Brown Corpus.
Like an encyclopedia, a dictionary has a set of words and something to say about each. But what words they write about and what they write about words is different.
A dictionary aims to cover the most commonly used
words. For each it tells you how to use it and what it means.
An encyclopedia covers the most important subjects of knowledge. For each it tells you the main things that are known about it.
For example an encyclopedia will tell you a great deal about Napoleon but almost nothing about “into”. For a dictionary it is the other way round.