The Features, Functions, and Limitations of Dictionaries

woman reading a dictionary
"Dictionaries are like watches," said Samuel Johnson. "The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true" (letter to Francesco Sastres, August 21, 1784). (Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

A dictionary is a reference book or online resource containing an alphabetical list of words, with information given for each word.

The following kinds of information commonly appear in dictionary entries:

Etymology: From the Latin, "to say"

Examples and Observations

  • "The writing of a dictionary . . . is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the 'true meanings' of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one's ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. If, for example, we had been writing a dictionary in 1890, or even as late as 1919, we could have said that the word 'broadcast' means 'to scatter' (seed, for example), but we could not have decreed that from 1921 on, the most common meaning of the word should become 'to disseminate audible messages, etc., by radio transmission.' To regard the dictionary as an 'authority,' therefore, is to credit the dictionary writer with gifts of prophecy which neither he nor anyone else possesses. In choosing our words when we speak or write, we can be guided by the historical record afforded us by the dictionary, but we cannot be bound by it. Looking under a 'hood,' we should ordinarily have found, five hundred years ago, a monk; today, we find a motorcar engine."
    (S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, 1978)
  • "A dictionary is an observatory, not a conservatory."
    (attributed to Stephen Fry)
  • "[T]he familiar notion that a word of English exists only if it is 'in the dictionary' is false. A word exists if people use it. But that word may fail to appear in a particular dictionary published at a particular time because it is too new, or too specialized, or too localized, or too much confined to a particular social group to make it into that edition of the dictionary."
    (R.L. Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)
  • "Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated."
    (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820)

The First English Dictionary

  • "Many people mistakenly credit [Samuel] Johnson with writing the first English dictionary. That achievement belongs to a man named Cawdrey, who, 150 years before Johnson, published A Table Aphabetical. It was only 144 pages and defined some 2,500 dificult words; the rest people were just supposed to know. With its emphasis on boosting vocabulary, Cawdrey's book is a lot like modern-day titles that help you pump up your word aresenal before attacking the SAT or waging war in the corporate world."
    (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)

Dictionaries and Usage

  • "Although dictionaries are powerless to prevent linguistic conventions from changing, this does not mean . . . that they cannot state the conventions in force at a given time. That is the rationale behind the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel--which I chair--a list of 200 authors, journalists, editors, academics, and other public figures whose writing shows that they choose their words with care. Every year they fill out questionnaires on pronunciation, meaning, and usage, and the Dictionary reports the results in Usage Notes attached to entries for problematic words, including changes in repeated ballotings over the decades. The Usage Panel is meant to represent the virtual community for whom careful writers write, and when it comes to best practices in usage, there can be no higher authority than that community."
    (Steven Pinker, "False Fronts in the Language Wars." Slate, May 31, 2012)

The Limitations of Dictionaries

  • "[E]ven the largest dictionaries can't capture every possible word in the language. The number of possible word combinations of word elements like pre-, pter, and scope and the innumerable amount of speaking and writing done in English require that dictionary editors restrict themselves to listing only the most frequent words in a language, and even then, only those used over a substantial period of time. Dictionaries are therefore always at least slightly out of date and inaccurate in their descriptions of the language's stock of words. In addition, the use of many words is restricted to specific domains. For example, medical terminology involves a tremendous number of words unfamiliar to those outside the medical community. Many of these terms never enter general dictionaries of the language and can only be found in specialized medical dictionaries."
    (Keith Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben, English Vocabulary Elements, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • "[M]y recent affair with lexicography has left me certain of a couple of things.
    "One is that no dictionary contains every word in the language. Even an unabridged dictionary is, well, abridged. The sciences, medicine and technology generate gobs of words that never make it into a dictionary; numerous foreign words that appear in English-language contexts are left out. A great many words are invented all the time, whether for commercial reasons or to amuse one’s friends or to insult one’s enemies, and then they simply vanish from the record.
    "Another is that dictionary users and dictionary makers sometimes have very different notions of what a dictionary is for. One may think of it as a legal code for language; the other considers it a very partial report. One wants unambiguous answers about spelling and meaning and grammar and usage; the other aims for neutrality, and the more serious he or she is, the more wary the person is of imposing his or her own notions of good English on the language itself."
    (David Skinner, "The Role of a Dictionary." The New York Times, May 17, 2013)

    Advantages of Online Dictionaries

    • "Macmillan, a publishing company, has announced that it will no longer print dictionaries. And yet it has announced this with a tone not of sadness, but excitement: "exiting print is a moment of liberation, because at last our dictionaries have found their ideal medium." Michael Rundell, the editor-in-chief, makes a compelling case. Updating the print edition takes five years, while new words are constantly entering the language, and existing words are finding new meanings. Space constraints limit the dictionary's actual value.
      "And the points in favor of electronic dictionaries are even more compelling than the case against printed ones. Hyperlinks allow for quick learning about related items. Audio pronunciations beat out transcriptions in obscure formats. Photos and even videos are a snap to include. Blogs and other meta-content enrich the experience. Electronic data storage has already revolutionised lexicography. Huge searchable corpora of text allow dictionary-makers to find earlier and rarer words and usages than ever before. To have vast, rich and growing data going into the dictionary, and a bound and static product coming out, seems absurd."
      (R.L.G., "Dictionaries: Finding Their Ideal Format?" The Economist, November 22, 2012)

      The Lighter Side of Dictionaries

      • "If you have a big enough dictionary, just about everything is a word."
        (Dave Barry)
      • Dr. Samuel Johnson: [places the manuscript of his newly completed dictionary on the table] Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
        Blackadder: Every single one, sir?
        Dr. Johnson: Every single word, sir!
        Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.
        Dr. Johnson: What?
        Blackadder: Contrafribularities, sir? It is a common word down our way.
        Dr. Johnson: Damn!
        Blackadder: Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'm anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.
        ("Ink and Incapability," Blackadder, 1987)
      • "Seated one day at the dictionary I was pretty weary and also pretty ill at ease,
        Because a word I had always liked turned out not to be a word at all, and suddenly I found myself among the v's.
        And suddenly among the v's I came across a new word which was a word called velleity,
        So the new word I found was better than the old word I lost, for which I thank my tutelary deity . . .."
        (Ogden Nash, "Where There's a Will, There's Velleity." I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1938)

        Pronunciation: DIK-shun-air-ee