Language Dictionary Yesterday and Today


language dictionary It goes without saying that a language dictionary plays an important part in the modern culture: it reflects knowledge accumulated by society over centuries. In today’s globalized world, dictionaries have gained the same popularity as cookbooks, the Bible and the Koran. According to the available research data, 90% of English families have at least one dictionary. By the way, how many dictionaries do you have?


A language dictionary has become an integral part of the human culture long time ago. People have been using dictionaries for centuries.

Actually, the first prototype dictionaries were created thousands years ago. Their function was to explain “hard words”. The examples are glossaries of Sumerians dated the 25th century BC and Chinese glossaries dated the 20th century BC.

In addition, the ancients compiled lists of words (so called vocabularies) for different purposes. For example, trilingual Sumerian-Akkadian-Hittite tablets dated the 14-13 centuries BC and the Egyptian Ramesseum Onomasticon dated 1750 BC that contained words grouped into different categories such as birds, fishes, plants, animals, types of oils, Nubian fortresses, Upper Egyptian cities, etc. Other examples are lists of Sanskrit terms from astronomy, medicine and botany compiled after the 5th century AD.

The earliest dictionaries were written on papyrus, parchment, board, pottery, leather. Later on, on paper. The present is characterized by the increasingly widespread use of electronic dictionaries and online dictionaries.

So a language dictionary serves for the benefit of mankind for many centuries. But where does the word originate from?

Etymologically, dictionary is derived from Medieval Latin dictionarius meaning "a collection of dictions (words)." An English teacher John Garland first used dictionarius in this sense to name a list of Latin words to be learned by heart by his students. That was in c. 1225. Probably the first language dictionary published under the English title "Dictionary" was Sir Thomas Elyot’s Dictionary (Latin-English) which appeared in 1538.

Modern dictionaries are divided into two types: encyclopedias and linguistic dictionaries:

  • Encyclopedias explain objects, phenomena and activities; give information about events and people; interpret meanings of words: Encyclopedia Britannica, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
  • Linguistic dictionaries describe words, word-forms and morphemes from the point of view of word-formation, spelling, orthoepy, accuracy of use. Linguistic dictionaries are subdivided into bilingual (or multilingual) dictionaries, i.e. the dictionaries we use to learn a foreign language and to translate from/into a foreign language, and monolingual dictionaries.

A list of good English language dictionaries is available online here.





What is the difference between
a language dictionary and a glossary?

Figuratively speaking, a glossary is a “younger brother” of a language dictionary. A dictionary consists of a great number of words and definitions about different subjects. Of course, there are specialized dictionaries (for example, medical or economic dictionaries), but glossaries are much more specialized and much smaller in size.

Dictionaries are thick books officially recognized and published (on paper or in the electronic format), with explanations and definitions of words/terms, examples of their usage, and some etymological information. Glossaries are lists of words often complied for a personal use. You do not have to be a lexicographer to compile a glossary for yourself.


Thus, my translator colleagues from a market research company compiled such a glossary for themselves. This glossary is very short. It contains a dozen of basic phrases (such as Thanks, Hi/Good morning, Kind regards, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Happy birthday) that are used in email correspondence. These phrases are translated into 40 languages. Such email glossary may be useful for those who have friends, relatives, colleagues or business partners abroad and want to say a few words to them in their native language. To go to the email glossary, click here.

Need more information about dictionaries or a specific dictionary? Use this specialized Dictionaries Search Engine to search the Web for dictionaries.

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

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