Dictionaries and Encyclopedias Research Paper

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Dictionaries and encyclopedias are outgrowths of the human urge to decipher, systematize, explain, and learn. From cuneiform tablets to the World Wide Web, dictionaries have defined, standardized, and influenced the use of human language, while encyclopedias have mirrored and shaped knowledge.

During their long history, dictionaries have reflected the history and origins of language, in addition to offering definitions, etymologies, pronunciations, and spelling standards. But they have also been criticized for contributing to ethnocentrism and linguistic conformity. For their part encyclopedias have provided classification concepts to organize world knowledge, while simultaneously offering a snapshot in time of that knowledge. They have fostered learning by educating as well as edifying the reader. But encyclopedias have also been grounded in contemporary biases and superstitions.

Rudimentary forms of dictionaries and encyclopedias have been used since ancient times. Compilations of bilingual word lists began as early as 3000 BCE in Sumerian culture and were later adopted by their conquering neighbors, the Akkadians, who then spread them to peoples from other parts of the Middle East. The Western tradition can be traced to the Greek glossai, which were used to interpret the classic literary works of Homer and the ancient law (Green 1996). The concept of the enkyklios paideia, the “general” or “rounded” education, goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In fact the first recognizable “encyclopedic” work is considered to be a collection of Plato’s writings by his nephew Speusippos that were used for instruction at Plato’s Academy.


In addition to the Greek glossai, there is an early tradition of lexicography in Sanskrit, as well as in Chinese, Arabic, and Japanese. As early as 300 BCE, lexicons were written to aid in understanding the Vedas, or sacred Hindu texts. Related to these is the later classic of Sanskrit lexicography, the Amarakosha by Amarasimha (650 CE). The Chinese tradition stems from early glosses like the Erh-ya in second century BCE. The Shuo wen jie zi compiled by Hsu Shen around 120 CE was the first etymological Chinese dictionary. While Arabic word lists and vocabularies predated it, the first Arabic dictionary is considered the Kitab al’ Ain by Al-Khal?l ibn Ahmad written in the late 700s CE. But it is the Sihah by al-Jawhar? (d. 1003) that set the standard for the classic Arabic dictionary and the Taj al-arus by al-Murtada al-Zab?d? (d.1791) that incorporated numerous previous works and represents the culmination of a thousand-year tradition. There is a long history of Japanese lexicography stretching from the Heian period (794–1185) to the end of the Muromachi period (1333–1573). The beginning of the modern Japanese dictionary, however, is traced to the Rakuyoshu , published by the Jesuits in 1598 (Bailey 1960).

Beside the Jesuit influence on Japanese dictionaries, there is an undeniable legacy of Western influence on non-Western dictionary making. Dictionaries of many African, Asian, and Pacific languages are relatively recent and bear the imprint of Western contact. Many of the first to study these languages and write dictionaries were missionaries and social workers. While making a significant contribution in being the first to record these languages, often their work was didactic and moralizing. In addition early missionaries like Alexandre de Rhodes compiled dictionaries using Romanized scripts, further portraying the native language through Western eyes. The same holds true for African languages with the later, more formal efforts of organizations like the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, founded in London (1926), and the Instituto de Estudios Africanos, founded in Madrid (1939). And today, modern Arabic lexicographers, inspired by E. W. Lane’s Madd al-Qamus, Arabic- English Lexicon (1863–1893), follow Western methods and principles.

Greeks and Romans

After the first century, Greeks and Romans continued building a tradition of lexicography. The famous Greek philologist Aristophanes of Byzantium assembled the first Greek dictionary entitled Lexeis (200 BCE) based on previous glossai and word lists. The prolific Marcus Terentius Varro contributed the De Lingua Latina (43 BCE) that was more a study of grammar, but with a number of etymologies. Other writers like Verrius Flaccus (c. 10 BCE) and his De Significatu Verborum, Julius Pollux (180–238 CE) and his Onomasticon, and Photius (860–935 CE) and his Lexicon, also made their mark on early lexicography. Their work, and similar efforts, culminated in the great tenth-century lexicon the Suda or Suidas. Actually a combination dictionary and encyclopedia, the Suda contained about thirty thousand entries on language, literature, and history. More importantly, it integrated all of this material alphabetically. Up to this point, most works had not used alphabetical order (Collison 1964). Another later landmark was Ambrogio Calepino’s Dictionarium ex optimis quibusquam . . . (1502), which came out in numerous editions into the early 1700s. Initially the Dictionarium was in Latin, but later expanded to a number of other languages including Hebrew, German, French, Greek, Italian, and English (Green 1996).

English Dictionaries

The first purely English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall [sic] in 1604. Consisting of only 2,560 entries, mostly plagiarized from other sources, Cawdrey concentrated on so-called hard words. This “hard word” tradition held sway through the seventeenth century. Attempting to record all English words was left to the remarkable Oxford English Dictionary nearly three centuries later.

Dozens of other dictionaries were published after Cawdrey, but it was Samuel Johnson who authored the first great English dictionary. In a sense Johnson’s work was in response to the great continental dictionaries like those of Italy, the Accademia della Crusca’s Vocabolario (1612), and France, the Dictionnaire de l’Academie Francaise (1694). Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) answered the need for an authoritative English language dictionary and “the growing desire to create . . . a national language” (Green 1996, 226). But instead of being a national project undertaken by an academy of scholars, the work was left to Johnson and six assistants. In all Johnson defined some 40,000 headwords, using approximately 118,000 quotations to support and differentiate meanings.

National impulses also inspired the work of Noah Webster. He realized that American English was distinct from the language spoken in England, and his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) reflected this fact. His dictionary also had a lasting impact on the spelling of American English. But Webster’s work may have faded from view had not George and Charles Merriam purchased the rights from his family. The Merriams improved the quality of the dictionary and published revisions and abridgements on a regular schedule. The name Merriam-Webster is still one of the most respected in dictionary publishing.

The greatest of all English dictionaries is undoubtedly the fabled Oxford English Dictionary. The OED, as it is often referred to, was conceived as a recorder of actual historic usage, not as a standard, dictating proper English (Landau 1989). Under the editorship of the brilliant, if eccentric, James Murray, the first volume of the OED was published in 1884, with the final volume appearing in 1928. Since that time there have been several supplements with a twenty-volume, second edition published in 1989. It is also available online and on CD-ROM, which allows quarterly updating. With its precise definitions, illustrative quotations, variant spellings, and comprehensive etymologies, the OED is an indispensable tool for the study of English.


The Romans laid the foundation of the written encyclopedia. The Praecepta ad Filium (184 BCE) by the famed Roman orator Marcus Terentius Cato (Cato the Elder) is considered the first extant written encyclopedia. Taking the form of letters to his son, the Praecepta is known to have included sections on “agriculture, medicine, rhetoric and possibly law and warfare” (Collison 1964, 23). Other similar works exist, but two particularly, stand out. Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BCE) was an extraordinary scholar credited with seventy-four separate works in 620 volumes. His Disciplinarum Libri Novem devoted individual volumes to each of the seven liberal arts, as well as medicine and architecture, and foreshadowed the trivium (“the three roads”: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and quadrivium (“the four roads”: mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music) of later medieval education. Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis (77 CE) consisted of thirty-seven books covering topics as diverse as metallurgy and the fine arts. In addition he was one of the first to cite his sources, and his work influenced encyclopedia making up to the Renaissance.

Eastern Traditions

The encyclopedia tradition is as rich in China as in the West. Although early Chinese encyclopedias also use classified arrangements, they are usually collections of significant prior works with dictionary elements. From the beginning these works were motivated by the need to educate civil administrators. The first Chinese encyclopedia appeared around 220 CE. It was entitled Huang Ian and was compiled by order of the emperor. Other early Chinese encyclopedias included the Ch’u Hsueh chi (700 CE) and the more influential T’ung tien by Tu Yu (801 CE). The T’ung tien was the first of three works that formed the San Tung, which in turn was the foundation of a larger group of nine works published as the Chiu Tung in 1747 (Collison 1964). These encyclopedias collectively covered the prior twelve centuries and show the tendency of the Chinese encyclopedias to grow and be augmented, rather than be replaced. Another example is the significant work Yu-Hai. Originally composed in 1267, it had evolved into a 240-volume collection by 1738. Throughout the 1600s there was a series of encyclopedias published under the auspices of the emperor with the highly illustrated San ts’ai t’hu being published in 1607–1609. The Hsiao chih lu, finished by Lu Feng-tso in 1804, was unique for its coverage of practical and technical matters. A number of other encyclopedias appeared later in the century with particular strengths in history, biography, and civil service. However, the first truly modern Chinese encyclopedia was the Tz’u-yuan published in 1915 and supplemented in 1931. In progress since 1982, the Chung-kuo ta pai ko chuan shu, well illustrated with lengthy articles, carries on the tradition.

Arabic encyclopedias also served the purpose of instructing civil servants, but in addition, they sought to inform the typical educated person. The first recognized work, the Kita? l ‘Uyu?n al Akhbar by Ibn Qutayba (828–889 CE) was written with this audience in mind. Another significant Arabic contribution was the Mafa?t??h al-‘Ulum (975–997 CE) by the Persian scholar and statesman, al-Khwarizmi. Besides Arab influences, his work reflected an awareness of the more important Greek writings. Around the same time a religious and political party called the Ikhwa?n as-Safa? published the Rasa?’il Ikhwa?n as-Safa? consisting of fifty-two pamphlets by five authors. (An edition of this work was published as late as 1889.) Later encyclopedias were published in Egypt, including the well-known Niha?yat al-‘arab fifunu?n al-adab by an- Nuwairi (1272–1332), and the important and wellorganized S?ubh al-a’sha (1412), which was written for civil servants. The tradition of Arabic encyclopedias has continued into modern times with the works of Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883) and his family. Their Da’irat al-Maarif, originally published in Beirut, has gone through three editions, the first published from 1875 to 1900 and the last finished in 1956. Today there are initiatives underway to publish major encyclopedias from the Islamic standpoint. A special scholarly institute has been established in Iran and is at work compiling a multivolume encyclopedia to reflect the Shiite perspective.

Western Encyclopedias and the Church

The Western encyclopedia tradition felt Christianity’s influence by the sixth century. Cassiodorus’s two volume Institutiones divinarum et humanarum lectionum (560 CE) begins with chapters on scripture and commentary, as well as chapters on the historians and the Fathers of the Church. But Cassiodorus was also responsible for preserving the ancient Latin authors, pointing out “how to employ classical literature to support Christian education” (Katz 1998, 26). In his twenty-volume Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville (570–636 CE) shifts from the more narrow theological focus of Cassiodorus and emphasizes “the liberal arts and secular learning as the true basis of Christianity” (Collison 1964, 33). He tries to cover all that was then known of the world, even including an etymological dictionary.

The seeds of the medieval scholastic encyclopedia can be found in Isidore’s and Cassiodorus’s work. Scholasticism, which tried to reconcile ancient classical philosophy with medieval Church theology, was firmly rooted in later works. Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon (1120) is a noteworthy example. While adhering to the hierarchy of text placing scripture and Church-related subjects first, Hugh affirmed the seven liberal arts as the basis for classifying knowledge and insisted on the primacy of Latin, not the vernacular in his work. Speculum majus (1244–1260) is perhaps the most important of the medieval encyclopedias. Authored by Vincent of Beauvais, it consisted of nearly ten thousand chapters in eighty books and used some four hundred sources. The Speculum majus was still being referenced centuries after it first appeared. Unfortunately it also played a role in promoting anti-Semitism by containing a rewritten version of one of the best-known medieval anti-Jewish tracts, the Dialogi contra Judaeos, by Petrus Alfonsi. Around this time the Hortus deliciarum (1195 CE), the first encyclopedia compiled by a woman, Herrad of Landsberg, appeared, as did the first encyclopedia in the vernacular, Le Livre dou Tresor (1265 CE), by Bruno Latini.

Renaissance to the Modern Era

The greatest contribution of the Renaissance was an encyclopedia that was barely begun and never finished; however, Francis Bacon’s Instaurantio magna (1620), with its proposed outline and classification scheme, was revolutionary and its influence lasting. Grounded in scientific method, Bacon covered every known topic of the day and his outline served as checklist for future encyclopedias, including that of Diderot and the great L’Encyclopedie. The seventeenth century also saw the popularizing of the alphabetical arrangement with the publication of Louis Moreri’s Le grand dictionnaire historique (1674). This made the encyclopedia much easier to consult for specific facts. John Harris was the first to solicit experts to write articles for his Lexicon Technicum (1704). He also added high-quality illustrations and plates to his work, as well as selected bibliographies. Incorporating many of Harris’s methods, Ephraim Chambers made the encyclopedia accessible to a mass audience by stressing readable articles in his Cyclopaedia (1728). He also broadened coverage of the arts and employed a through system of cross-references.

L’Encyclopedie and the Britannica

Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond, later known as d’Alembert, changed what started as a translation of the Chambers Cyclopaedia into what would become the most famous and storied encyclopedias in history. Under their guidance, particularly Diderot’s, L’Encyclopedie (1765) became a revolutionary philosophical undertaking, featuring the writing of luminaries like Voltaire, Turgot, and Rousseau. It rejected much of the past, and it promulgated the scientific theories and advanced ideas of the Enlightenment. Reason, not the Church, was the source of authority, and traditional learning was criticized for its prejudice and superstition. L’Encyclopedie was a powerful tool of protest and was subject to censorship and suppression. But because it also reflected the interests of the emerging middle class devoted to commerce and capitalism, it became widely popular and influential.

Two other names dominate encyclopedia publishing following the L’Encyclopedie: David Frederich Brockhaus and Pierre Larousse. Their works, the Koversations-Lexikon (1811) and the Grand Dictionnaire Universal (1876), featured short, accessible articles, alphabetically arranged, which highlighted their use as reference works to be consulted rather than read. Publishing houses bearing their names continue to publish highly respected encyclopedias today. Another great Continental encyclopedia that has to be mentioned is the Enciclopedia italiana di scienze, lettere ed arti (1929–1939). One of the finest national encyclopedias ever published, it is nonetheless international in scope (Collison 1964).

The Encyclopedia Britannica ranks in importance with Diderot’s L’Encyclopedie. The first edition consisted of three volumes of both fact and fiction, but under the editorship of John Tytler that changed. His second edition (1784) was a ten-volume set with 340 plates and an emphasis on historical articles and biographies. It was revised and changed incrementally until the landmark ninth edition (1888), which along with the classic eleventh edition (1911) is thought the standard in balanced, accessible scholarship. These two editions created the Britannica’s reputation. But, the success of the Britannica was due to as much to marketing and an increasingly affluent middle class, as to the quality of the set, especially in the United States. By the fourteenth edition, released in 1929, the Britannica was being published in America and reflected American interests more than British. In the early twenty-first century, while still available in print, the Britannica is perhaps more commonly used in one of its electronic formats. There is a free version of the encyclopedia that gives brief excerpts from the full version, and a premium subscription with access full text and research tools.

Present and Future Trends

As knowledge grows exponentially, dictionaries and encyclopedias continue to evolve and change; they are no longer solely geared to scholars. Mass-market dictionaries and encyclopedias, appealing to a far wider audience, are available in supermarkets as well as bookstores. This is particularly true for dictionaries, and it heightens the tension between their proscriptive and descriptive roles. Dictionaries are asked to be authoritative yet neutral and objective, and at the same time describe living language as spoken by a broad population. This dichotomy can be expected to grow as dictionaries appeal to an even wider audience via computers and the World Wide Web. Some online dictionaries, like the free Dictionary.com, however, are gaining the trust of users by offering thorough and dependable definitions as well as keeping up with current words and terms.

Computer technology also provides timeliness undreamed of by previous dictionary makers. Online dictionaries can be updated immediately and continuously. In addition, computers revolutionize the way people search and retrieve needed information. As the editors of the OED Online note, “Complex investigations into word origins or quotations that would have been impossible to conduct using the print edition now take only a few seconds.” And computers, combined with the World Wide Web, enable collaborative scholarly projects like the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia effort led by the University of Chicago, and popular collections of online dictionaries like www.yourdictionary.com.

Today the traditional role of an encyclopedia in classifying the world’s knowledge is marginal. Indexes, cross-references, and hyperlinks supplant schema and classification. The encyclopedia is no longer read and contemplated; it is consulted for objective facts and background information. And the general encyclopedia is not the dominant form. There are hundreds of subject encyclopedias, including those like the Grove Dictionary of Art and Wiley-Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, that are larger than many general encyclopedias.

As with dictionaries, computers are accelerating the encyclopedia’s transformation. Following the growing migration of information from print to electronic, dictionary and encyclopedia publishers are increasingly providing digital access to their content. Major publications like the Oxford English Dictionary and the Grove Dictionary of Music have moved online, and electronic collections of print reference works are being gathered in searchable databases like the Gale Virtual Reference Library, Oxford Reference Online, Credo, and Sage Reference Online, among others. Most of these publishers still offer print editions of their encyclopedias and dictionaries, but electronic access is a standard expectation among users. It is hard to ignore the advantages of a searchable database in which locating information is far easier and more flexible, and the results are immediate and easily accessible.

The most influential, as well as controversial development in the recent evolution of encyclopedias is the creation of Wikipedia. The Wikipedia (2010) website defines itself as “a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project based on an openly-editable model [that] is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay.” The people at Wikipedia might have added that these volunteers “have no qualifying credentials save an Internet connection” (Chandler and Gregory 2010, 247). This lack of credentials on the part of the contributors is used to cast dispersions on the validity and reliability of Wikipedia. There are also complaints that “because of its open nature, it has also been subjected to vandalism,” and that the “volunteers who write articles sometimes take excessive ownership of what they’ve contributed, deleting the changes, including corrections, that others make” (Goldsborough 2009, 13). While this is all true, there is no arguing with Wikipedia’s success. As of April 2010, there were nearly 3.4 million articles in the English-language version alone, and according to Alexa (n.d.), a website specializing in Internet traffic metrics, Wikipedia ranks sixth among all websites visited on the Web. There have also been studies supporting Wikipedia’s accuracy and reliability, the most famous being an article appearing in the December 2005 issue of the prestigious journal Nature, which reported that Wikipedia “contains only slightly more inaccuracies in science-related topics than does Encyclopaedia Britannica” (Chandler and Gregory 2010, 248). The findings were disputed by Britannica, but nonetheless the impression among millions of users is that Wikipedia is useful for finding basic information and quick facts.

There can be little doubt that the advent of the World Wide Web and the availability of electronic information it provides have dramatically impacted the production and use of dictionaries and encyclopedias. Immediate access to useful information from respected publishers is readily available to libraries and individual subscribers willing to pay, while online communities of volunteers are producing free tools like Wikipedia that seriously challenge the place that traditional dictionaries and encyclopedias hold. But the computer and the World Wide Web also serve to further fragment information, violating one of the encyclopedia’s original purposes: organizing knowledge into an understandable whole. The role encyclopedias have played in preserving knowledge is also threatened by the reliance on electronic formats that may not exist in coming decades. And the lack of standards inherent in World Wide Web publishing endangers the aura of authority and reliability attached to both dictionaries and encyclopedias. In short, the future holds both exciting promise and troubling pitfalls for these historically valuable reference works.


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