English Dictionaries

One of the most valuable resources for writers and readers is a dictionary. A dictionary is a book filled with definitions of all the official words in a language. When readers encounter unknown words, they can turn to a dictionary to find out what they mean. Writers can also use dictionaries to determine the best words to use to express their thoughts. Understanding the history of dictionaries and their different functions today can thus help many people strengthen their literacy skills. 

English Dictionaries English Dictionaries

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Table of contents

    Role of Dictionaries in English

    The role of an English dictionary is to be a lexicological reference, meaning it provides information about the vocabulary words in a language. English dictionaries always provide readers with the definition of words. They also often mention pronunciation, grammatical forms, and variations in spellings. Some thorough dictionaries will additionally include information about the usage of words, etymologies of words, and synonyms and antonyms.

    English Dictionaries History

    Today, it is easy to quickly look up the definition of a word with an online search engine. But before the internet, physical dictionaries were a vital resource for everyone. English dictionaries date back to the 1600s, when there was a broad social push for increased literacy. The English schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey published the first official English dictionary entitled A Table Alphabetical in London in 1604. His book is considered the first English dictionary because he arranged the words alphabetically rather than by topic.

    English Dictionaries, London, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The first official English dictionary was published in London in 1604.

    The first English dictionaries were not the same comprehensive language dictionaries people use today. They were mainly used to translate languages, making them bi-lingual or multi-lingual texts. Early monolingual dictionaries were "hard word" dictionaries and only included the definitions of words that were considered tough to learn. It was not until the mid-1600s that writers started publishing more general dictionaries, which included words beyond technical vocabulary.

    Dictionaries continued to expand and register more and more words in the English language. The next major change happened in 1806 when the American lexicographer and language reformer Noah Webster aimed to standardize American English. Before Webster, most Americans were spelling words how they thought they sounded; writing thus looked different depending on how individuals thought words should be spelled. To address such inconsistencies, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first dictionary to introduce American English spellings that differed from British spellings and added words unique to American English.

    A lexicographer is a person who puts together dictionaries. The word lexicon refers to the vocabulary of a language.

    The earliest recorded form of English was Anglo-Saxon, which is now called Old English. This language was spoken until around 1100 AD, but there are still important works of literature written in it, like the epic poem Beowulf (c. 1000). It is therefore still valid for English students to learn about Old English. While new dictionaries do not include words in the language, readers can find Old English dictionaries online.

    English Dictionaries Types

    While there are many different English dictionary types, the four most common are monolingual dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, and encyclopedic dictionaries.

    Monolingual English Dictionaries

    Monolingual English dictionaries are a good source of information for those who can already speak English. Today, most monolingual English dictionaries cover both general and technical words in the language. Still, some are specific to particular fields, too, such as dictionaries of arts and artists.

    While dictionaries are generally useful tools for discovering definitions, they have a history of being occasionally tongue-in-cheek. For example, the first Polish dictionary, published in 1745, contained such classic definitions as "Horse: Everyone knows what a horse is."

    English Dictionaries, Dictionary, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Dictionaries can be monolingual or bilingual.

    Bilingual English Dictionaries

    As the prefix "bi" suggests, a bilingual English dictionary provides readers with information in two languages. For example, if a French speaker is learning English, then the English word in a bilingual dictionary would be followed by the definition in French. Featuring the definition in the language the readers are most familiar with helps them thoroughly learn what the word means. Sometimes, dictionaries also feature text in more than two languages.

    Encyclopedic Dictionaries

    Dating back to the 17th century, encyclopedic dictionaries do not just include definitions of words but also in-depth descriptions that provide knowledge on the topic. Encyclopedic dictionaries tend to focus on one field, such as law, and then feature different sub-topics within them.

    Rhyming Dictionaries

    A rhyming dictionary is a type of dictionary that categorizes words by how they rhyme with other words. Rhyming dictionaries are of particular use for people doing creative writing or writing poetry, as these types of writing often feature rhyme schemes.

    English Dictionaries, Writing, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Rhyming dictionaries are useful for writing poetry.

    Dictionaries will typically state whether they are unabridged or not. If a dictionary is unabridged, it is the most complete version of the text. There are also abridged versions of some dictionaries, which are condensed versions. Condensed versions are more portable and to the point but do not include some details that researchers need, like the etymology (the history) of a word.

    Major English Dictionaries

    There are many English dictionaries that people can choose to use when looking up the definitions of words. However, the following dictionaries are considered the major English dictionaries and are most commonly used.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

    Published in 1928, the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most widely used and comprehensive English dictionaries. The dictionary features the history of English language development, which can be of great use to scholars looking for a lot of information about a word. In total, it features over 600,000 words. There is also a shortened version of the OED available, which may be more beneficial for people who are quickly searching for a simple definition and who do not need esoteric words.

    Scholars spend four decades working on the first copy of the OED!

    New Oxford American Dictionary

    The editors at the Oxford University Press also published a single-volume dictionary called the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD). This dictionary features American English, which uses some different words and spellings than British English. This is an excellent source for American writers and readers or those learning American English.

    Merriam-Webster's Dictionary

    Named for the famous Noah Webster, the Merriam-Webster dictionary is one of the most popular American English dictionaries. The first edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary was published in 1847 and is still available in print and online today.

    These dictionaries are also available online! Some of them also have the function of a thesaurus, which provides users with the synonyms (words that have a similar definition) of the terms listed.

    English Dictionaries, New Webster, StudySmarterFig. 4 - There are many English dictionaries to choose from.

    English Dictionaries List

    While the above three dictionaries are the primary dictionaries that English language speakers use, the following list features other credible dictionaries that can provide information to readers.

    • American Heritage Dictionary

    • Cambridge Dictionary

    • Century Dictionary

    • Collins English Dictionary

    • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

    • Macmillan Dictionary

    • Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary

    Most of the above dictionaries also have websites or phone apps where you can search for the definition of words. This puts all the knowledge in a dictionary at your fingertips!

    English Dictionaries - Key Takeaways

    • A dictionary is a book filled with definitions of all the official words in a language.
    • Robert Cawdrey published the first official English dictionary in London in 1604.
    • In 1806 Noah Webster helped standardize American English by including phonetics in his dictionary.
    • English dictionaries are either monolingual and all in English or bilingual, half in English and half in another language.
    • Rhyming dictionaries organize words by how they rhyme with each other, while encyclopedic dictionaries feature pieces of information about various topics.
    Frequently Asked Questions about English Dictionaries

    Which English dictionary is best?

    The English dictionary that is best depends on what the reader is looking for. For instance, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary includes a detailed overview of all of the words. However, if a reader just needs a simple definition, they could consult any abridged dictionary. 

    What is the most official English dictionary?

     The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary

    What is the best free English dictionary?

    The free English dictionary that is best depends on what the reader is looking for. For instance, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary includes a detailed overview of all of the words. However, if a reader just needs a simple definition, they could consult any abridged dictionary. 

    Who wrote the first English dictionary?

    Robert Cawdrey 

    Where was the first English dictionary made?


    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false, it's always possible to directly translate phrases?

    Fill in the blank:Most bilingual dictionaries are _____.

    Fill in the blank:When searching for a word in a bilingual dictionary, you should look for its ____ ____.


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    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Teachers

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