What is a dictionary?

The Collins English Dictionary (CED), one of the most important English reference works defines the term “dictionary” as follows:

“dictionary (phonetic transcription) n., pl. –aries. 1. a. a reference book that consists of an alphabetical list of words with their meanings and parts of speech, and often a guide to accepted pronounciation and syllabification, irregular inflections of words, derived words of different words of speech, and etymologies. b. a similar reference books giving equivalent words in two or more languages. Such dictionaries often consist of two or more parts, in each of which the alphabetical list is given in a different language: a German-English dictionary. c. (as modifier): a dictionary definition. See also glossary, lexicon, thesaurus. 2. a reference book listing words or terms of a particular subject or activity, giving information about their meanings and other attributes: a dictionary of gardening. 3. a collection of information or examples with the entries alphabetically arranged: a dictionary of quotations.” (Makins, Marian. Ed. Collins English Dictionary, third edition. Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1991. p. 438)

As you may have realized, it is not easy to define what a dictionary is and that you need to consider various aspects.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) needs one and a half columns of space to define the term, present its roots and mention its first appearances in English literature. The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary presents the term within a number of different words ending with “-ary” to make the rhyming of it easier, but offers no definitions or other information at all. There are dictionaries for almost everything and seemingly there is no convention, what a dictionary should look like and what it should deal with.
Sidney Landau, himself a dictionary-maker, wrote in his book entitled “Dictionaries” that the term is powerful and suggests authority, scholarship and precision. So, he continues, it is no surprise that various authors of books decide to call their works dictionaries (Landau, Sidney I. Dictionaries. The Art and Craft of Lexicography, New York: The Scribner Press, 1984, p. 5). If we rely on him, we have to differentiate between two often interchanged words that do not mean the same, “dictionary” and “encyclopaedia”:
“A dictionary is a book that lists words in an alphabetical order and describes their meanings. Modern dictionaries often include information about spelling, syllabication, pronounciation, etymology (word derivation), usage, synonyms, and grammar, and sometimes illustrations as well. An encyclopaedia is a collection of articles about every brand of knowledge. Although the articles are usually arranged alphabetically, and though they often include definitions, their descriptions go far beyond the information given in a dictionary.” (Landau 1991, p.5)
That definition basically omits somewhat odd works like the mentioned Rhyming Dictionary and narrows our view to traditional types of dictionaries.
Ladislav Zgusta differentiates first and foremost between encyclopaedic and linguistic dictionaries. Nevertheless we should keep in mind Y. Malkiel who said that “the word dictionary can apply quite loosely to any reference work arranged by words or name” (quoted in Zgusta, Ladoslav. Manual of Lexicography. Prague: Academia, Publishing House of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1971).


1. Define the “term” dictionary as shortly and as precisely as possible without looking at the Collins example. Compare your result to it after you have finished and look up more definitions in various dictionaries in the university library if you like. Are there different approaches to the term in different dictionaries? Which? Look here for the Collins English Dictionary and the Oxford Advanced Learner` s Dictionary examples!