Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

What's "The Dictionary" Anyway?

When people talk about whether a word is "in the dictionary," have you stopped to think about what "the dictionary" actually means? In the following excerpt from her new book How to Read a Word, Elizabeth Knowles takes readers on a brief tour of the dictionary and its historical authority, informed by the likes of Voltaire and Samuel Johnson.

"Is it in the dictionary?" is a formulation suggesting that there is a single lexical authority: "The Dictionary." As the British academic Rosamund Moon has commented, "The dictionary most cited in such cases is the UAD: the Unidentified Authorizing Dictionary, usually referred to as 'the dictionary,' but very occasionally as 'my dictionary.'" The American scholar John Algeo has coined the term lexicographicolatry for a reverence for dictionary authority amounting to idolatry. As he explained:

English speakers have adopted two great icons of culture: the Bible and the dictionary. As the Bible is the sacred Book, so the dictionary has become the secular Book, the source of authority, the model of behavior, and the symbol of unity in language.
—John Algeo, "Dictionaries as seen by the Educated Public in Great Britain and the USA" in F.J. Hausmann et al. (eds.) An International Encyclopedia of Lexicography (1989) vol. 1, p. 29

While recognizing the respect for lexical authority illuminated by this passage, it is difficult to find less unquestioning perspectives. The notion of any dictionary representing a type of scriptural authority runs counter, for instance, to the view of the "Great Lexicographer" Samuel Johnson that:

Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.
—Samuel Johnson, letter to Francesco Sastres, 21 August 1784

A dictionary may also be highly derivative: twenty years before Johnson's letter, the French writer and critic Voltaire had warned cynically in his Philosophical Dictionary that "All dictionaries are made from dictionaries." However, there is evidence that Johnson's contemporary Lord Chesterfield had also embraced the concept of universal lexical authorization. He wrote to his son in 1754:

Attend minutely to your style, whatever language you speak or write in; seek for the best words, and think of the best turns. Whenever you doubt of the propriety or elegancy of any word, search the dictionary, or some good author for it, or inquire of somebody, who is master of that language.
—Lord Chesterfield, letter, 12 February 1754

Overall, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a natural tendency to regard the dictionary with which we are most familiar as having particular authority...

dictionary: It is possible that dictionary will be one of the least-consulted entries in such a reference book, since if you are already using a dictionary, you may well not feel any need to explore its name. However, doing so does add interest and context to what has been a staple of our bookshelves for over five hundred years.

The first recorded use of the word in English comes from the first half of the sixteenth century, and its first appearance in a title is from a Latin-English dictionary of 1538, The Dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght. In 1547, a Welsh-English dictionary advertised itself as "moche necessary to all such Welshemen as will spedly lerne the Englyshe tongue." By the early seventeenth century, a character in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi could respond to an unknown word, "What's that? I need a dictionary to't."

The term came into the language from medieval Latin, originally in the fuller form dictionarium manuale "manual of words" or dictionarium liber "book of words." Dictionarium comes ultimately from Latin dicere "to say," which is also the basis of our English word diction.

This excerpt originally appeared on OUPblog. From How to Read a Word by Elizabeth Knowles. Copyright © 2010. Reproduced with permission of Oxford University Press.

Elizabeth Knowles became a historical lexicographer through working as a library researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, and then as a Senior Editor for the 4th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. She is Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (7th Edition), and her editorial credits include What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Watch some videos and read more here.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 22nd 2011, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Composing a dictionary is much like trying to catch the Grin of the Cheshire Cat. A work in progress: always.
Saturday July 23rd 2011, 11:00 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Elucidating. I appreciate the historical info and the links to such delights as "The Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs."
Sunday July 24th 2011, 9:54 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Excellent writing.
Codes are terrific.
If we pay keen attention to our spoken and written language (whatever that language be), I believe too that the final version will represent some effective voice.
I wish to follow the guidance.
Monday July 25th 2011, 2:26 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Kudos go to Carl S. from Oceanside, CA, for a fresh simile, i.e.:" trying to catch the Grin of the Cheshire Cat." Could it help CATch it if you speak Catonese? Keith M. (Kula, HI)
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 10:42 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
From this angulus terrarum, arbiter elegantiae, this animaL bows.
Argumentum ex silentio! And a new smiley!
Tuesday November 14th 2017, 11:08 PM
Comment by: JazzyFresh (OR)
I find it interesting when the article mentions the quote "English speakers have adopted two great icons of culture: the Bible and the dictionary." I find that quote is very interesting and intriguing! Thank you for writing such a great article!

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