Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Elements of a Great Dictionary

As a writer of dictionaries, I do a lot of work on definitions. Let's start with this question, then: what is a dictionary? Particularly, what makes a dictionary great, and what should a great dictionary be? We're trying to develop the world's greatest dictionary in WiktionaryZ, so I think these are reasonable questions to ask.

It's one of those questions we all think we know how to answer. Obviously, a dictionary is one of those big, thick books you haul out when children aren't quite tall enough to sit at the dinner table!

On closer inspection, though, the answer is not that obvious, so I'd like to take a closer look at what a dictionary is, and what a dictionary is not. I'll start with a few words about what a dictionary is not. A dictionary is not an encyclopedia. In an encyclopedia article, you should find information about a particular subject, for instance, paper. An encyclopedia might have a history of paper and paper-making, and its influence in world history. It might have information about different types of paper, or standard paper sizes. A dictionary, by contrast, will have information about the word paper, itself: etymology, pronunciation, meanings, and so on. There may very well be overlap. An encyclopedia article may begin with a brief description of what something is, or a word's history. Similarly, a dictionary may contain a few sentences about a subject to clarify a definition.

A great dictionary, furthermore, is not made of paper. Not these days. In an electronic age, a great dictionary should not be limited by the size of a bookshelf or a binding. Rare words should have their place. Complete details about words should have their place. Size and weight are not the only reasons to build a non-paper dictionary. A non-paper dictionary need not contain words in some linear order, and it can organize words by their relationships to one another. It can also retrieve information by an electronic search, either on headwords or on content. The information in it, if correctly structured, can be used for other purposes, such as spell-checking, language exercises, and machine translation. A non-paper dictionary can include multimedia content, too: audio pronunciations, images, and video, to name a few. I'll revisit these topics in subsequent entries.

Finally, a great dictionary is not exclusive. It should not exclude words, even rare or "objectionable" ones. It should not exclude any willing, sincere editors. Perhaps most importantly, it should not exclude users. The Oxford English Dictionary, the largest and most comprehensive dictionary currently existing for the English language, is exclusive in several ways. At $1500 or £850 for the print edition, or $295 for an annual online subscription, the cost is prohibitive to most users. It excludes words that are not English. It is copyrighted, so it is not free for derivative uses. Although scholars from throughout the world have helped to build the OED, it does exclude editors.

Over the next few entries, I'll explore more of what makes a great dictionary. I welcome your comments along the way.


Blogger Andrew said...

Great point, the OED while a great dictionary is way too expensive for a lot of people to be able to use. New words come up every day, you can't write one book and say thats final, new words become accepted every day.

Great article, I look forward to reading your future articles.

5:56 am  

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