Lexicography as a science of dictionary-making

Kolomna State Teacher-Training Institute

Report on the course:

Introduction to the Contemporary English Philology

Theme: Lexicography as a science of dictionary-making


Gavrilin M

Year 1 Term 2

Faculty of foreign languages

Group 11/2

Teacher of a foreign language:

Akhrenova N.A.





1. Lexicography as a science

2. Dictionary: notion, functions, classification, components

3. The characteristics of Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners


List of used literature


It’s well known that we can’t imagine studying any language in the world without such an important thing as a dictionary. It’s obvious that it plays the most leading role in studying a language. But there’s such a problem as what kind of a dictionary we must choose to improve our speech skills day by day.

This report is devoted to the lexicography as a science of dictionary-making. The pursuit of lexicography is divided into two related disciplines:

Practical lexicography is the art or craft of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries.

Theoretical lexicography is the scholarly discipline of analyzing and describing the semantic relationships within the lexicon (vocabulary) of a language and developing theories of dictionary components and structures linking the data in dictionaries. This is sometimes referred to as met lexicography.

A person devoted to lexicography is called a lexicographer, famously defined in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as "A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words".

General lexicography focuses on the design, compilation, use and evaluation of general dictionaries, i.e. dictionaries that provide a description of the language in general use. Such a dictionary is usually called a general dictionary or LGP dictionary. Specialized lexicography focuses on the design, compilation, use and evaluation of specialized dictionaries, i.e. dictionaries that are devoted to a (relatively restricted) set of linguistic and factual elements of one or more specialist subject fields, e.g. legal lexicography. Such a dictionary is usually called a specialized dictionary or LSP dictionary.

There is some disagreement on the definition of lexicology, as distinct from lexicography. Some use "lexicology" as a synonym for theoretical lexicography; others use it to mean a branch of linguistics pertaining to the inventory of words in a particular language.

It is now widely accepted that lexicography is a scholarly discipline in its own right and not a sub-branch of linguistics.

The theme of the report is actual because any pupil, student and even experienced teacher whose activity is closely connected with studying or teaching a language constantly needs a good dictionary which can always help at any time.

So the object of the investigation is lexicography as a science. The subject of investigation is dictionary-making itself.

There’re the following aims of the investigation: to show the importance of dictionary-making in modern linguistics, to study the history of lexicography and its modern development, to make out the dictionary its notion, functions, classification and components, to characterize the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners as an example of a dictionary of good quality.

1. Lexicography as a science

The theory and practice of compiling dictionaries is called lexicography.

In other words it is the art and craft of writing dictionaries.

The Erya, from the early 3rd century BC, was the first Chinese language dictionary. The book organized Chinese characters by semantic groups. The intention of this dictionary was to explain the true meaning and interpretation of words in the context of older ancient texts.

One of the earliest dictionaries known, and which is still extant today in an abridged form, was written in Latin during the reign of the emperor Augustus. It is known by the title De Significatu Verborum ("On the meaning of words") and was originally compiled by Verrius Flaccus. It was twice abridged in succeeding centuries, first by Sextus Pompeius Festus, and then by Paul the Deacon. Verrius Flaccus' dictionary was an abridged list of difficult or antiquated words, whose usage was illustrated by quotations from early Roman authors.

The word "dictionary" comes from neoclassical Latin, dictio, meaning simply "word".

The history of compiling dictionaries for English comes as far back as The Old English period, where we can find glosses of religious books. Regular bilingual dictionaries began to appear in the 15th century. These dictionaries were Anglo-Latin, Anglo-German, Anglo-French.

The first true English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabetical of 1604, although it only included 3,000 words and the definitions it contained were little more than synonyms. The first one to be at all comprehensive was Thomas Blount's dictionary Glossographia of 1656.

In 1721 an English scientist and writer Nathaniel Bailey published the 1st etymological dictionary which explained the origin of English words. It was called Universal Etymological English Dictionary. Bailey’s entries are fuller, compared with the glosses in the hard-word books, and there’re more of them (as many as 60, 000 in the 1736 edition), but his definitions lack illustrative support, and he gives little guidance about usage.

The history of lexicography is dominated by the names of 3 figures: Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster and James A. H. Murray. The role played by the first two in the Early Modern English period of the language was very significant. Their influence continues today – directly, in the case of Webster, through the series of dictionaries which bear his name; and indirectly, in the case of Johnson, through the tradition which led the Philological Society to sponsor a «new» English dictionary.

In 1755 an English scientist Samuel Johnson compiled a famous explanatory dictionary which was called A Dictionary of the English language. Over a seven-year period, Johnson wrote the definitions of 40,000 words, illustrating their use from the best authors since the time of the Elizabethans. Although Johnson was fewer entries than Bailey, his selection is more wide-ranging, and his lexicological treatment is far more discriminating and sophisticated.

The book, according to his biographer Boswell, «conferred stability» on the language – and at least with respect to spelling (where most of Johnson’s choices are found in modern practice).The alphabetical section of Johnson’s Dictionary is preceded by a famous Preface in which he outlines his aims and procedures:

When I took the 1st survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated… Having therefore no assistance but from general grammar, I applied myself to the perusal of our writers; and noting whatever might be of use to ascertain or illustrate any word or phrase, accumulated in time the materials of a dictionary, which, by degrees, I reduced to method…

The preliminaries also include a short history of the language, with long extracts from earlier authors, and a grammar, much influenced by the work of John Wallis, with sections on orthography and prosody. But it is in the Preface, often anthologized as an independent text, that we find an unprecedented statement of the theoretical basis of a dictionary project. The statement is notable for its awareness of the realities of the lexicographer’s task, and also for its descriptive intention – an interesting change of opinion from the prescriptive attitudes Johnson expressed in his 1747 Dictionary plan. There he had written: «The chief intent is to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom». The Preface, by contrast, stresses that his aim is «not form, but register the language»; and it is this principle which introduces a new era in Lexicography.

The Johnsonian Method.

This page illustrates several features of the approach Johnson outlines in his Preface:

1. Most of the definitions are appropriate and consistent between entries;

2. He plays special attention to the different senses of a word – five, in the case of eternal;

3. There’s a copious use of quotations to support a definition – 116,000 in all;

4. He routinely identifies parts of speech;

5. He shows the most strongly stressed syllable in a headword by an accent;

6. There’s an openness of approach;

7. He includes topical explanations of some words;

8. A wide range of ordinary words are included alongside technical terms;

9. It includes, in the «hard-words» tradition, many cumbersome Latinate forms, such as cubicula, estuation, whose status within English was doubtful;

10.  His creations are highly selective, chosen more for their literary or moral value than for their linguistic clarity;

11. Several of his definitions use difficult words, such as reciprocates in estuary;

12.  Several of his definitions have become famous for their subjectivity.

Some Johnsonian Definitions.

There’re not many truly idiosyncratic definitions in the Dictionary, but some have become famous.

LEXICOGRAPHER – a writer of dictionary, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

EXCISE – a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

OATS – a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

PATRON – one, who countenances, supports or protects.

PENSION – an allowance made to anyone without an equivalent. In England it’s generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

His definitions sometimes got him into trouble. He was threatened with libel over excise, and much lampooned over pension.

So Johnson’s Dictionary was the first attempt at a truly principled lexicography. It portrayed the complexity of the lexicon and of English usage more accurately than ever before; and his quotations initiated a practice which has informed English dictionaries ever since. The dictionary influenced normalization of the English vocabulary but at the same time it helped to preserve the English spelling in its conservative form.

In 1857 the Philological Society of Great Britain, noting the inadequacies of the English dictionaries then available, adopted the decision to compile a dictionary including all the words existing in the language from Anglo-Saxon times.

Twenty six years later in 1884 the first volume was published; it contained words ginning with A and B. The editor of this dictionary was James A. H. Murray. The aim was to produce a 4-volume work in a period of 10 years; but after 5 years, Murray and his colleagues had managed to complete only the section A-ANT; it was 352 pages, and sold for 62 ½ p in modern money. It was evident that the dictionary was a much greater work than had been envisaged. Additional editors were appointed and the last volume was published in 1928, the dictionary was called NED (New English Dictionary). It contained 12 volumes, comprising 15,487 pages and covering 414,825 lexical items.

In 1933 the dictionary was republished under the title «The Oxford English Dictionary» because the work on this dictionary was conducted at Oxford. The dictionary contained 13 volumes. Work on the dictionary recommended in1957, with the appointment of R.W. Burchfield to edit a new supplement. This appeared in 4 volumes between 1972 and 1986, and included the content of the 1933 work: it added 5,732 pages to the dictionary, and nearly 70,000 further lexical items.

As it was large and very expensive scientists continued their work and made shorter editions of the dictionary. The shorter Oxford dictionary contained the same number of entries but far less examples from literature. They also compiled a Concise Oxford Dictionary. It contained only one volume and no examples at all.

American lexicography began to develop much later at the end of the 18th century. The most famous American dictionary was compiled by Noah Webster. In 1828 he published a two volume dictionary (70,000 words), which was called American Dictionary of the English language. He tried to simplify English spelling and transcription. The work greatly improved the coverage of scientific and technical terms, as well as terms to do with American culture and institutions and added a great deal of encyclopedic information. A new feature was the introduction of Webster’s own etymologies – though the speculative nature of many of these was an early source of unwelcome criticism. The spellings were somewhat more conservative than those used in the 1806 book. Its pronunciations were generally provincial in character – those of Webster’s own New England. The label «American» in the title is more a reflection of the works of American authors referred to than of its uniquely American lexicon. Indeed, at one point Webster observed that «there were not 50 words in all which were used in America and not in England». On the other hand, nearly half of the words he did include are not to be found in Johnson’s Dictionary, which added considerable force to his claim that he was giving lexicography a fresh direction.

Despite its weaknesses and its critics, the American Dictionary made Webster a household name in the USA. It was fiercely attacked in Britain for its Americanism especially in matters of spelling and usage; but the work was crucial in giving to US English an identity and status comparable to that given to the British English lexicon by Dr Johnson.

Indeed, it’s difficult to appreciate today the impact which Webster’s Dictionary made at the time, and just how authoritative the book was perceived to be. After Webster’s death (1843), the rights were purchased by George and Charles Merriam, and later editions have appeared under the name of Merriam-Webster. A revision in 1847 was edited by Webster’s son-in-law, Chauncey A. Goodrich. Several dictionaries within this tradition appeared in the following decades, via the Webster’s International Dictionary of 1890 to the Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1909, with a second edition in 1934. The 3rd edition appeared in 1961, edited by Philip B. Gove, based on a collection of over 6 million citations of usage, and dealing with over 450,000 words. This edition prepared over a 10-year period, took up 757 editor-years, and proved to be highly controversial. Three supplements later appeared – of 6,000 words (1976), 89,000 words (1983), and 12,000 words (1986), and a CD is also available. Outside of this tradition, many other publishers have come to use the «Webster» name for their dictionaries and word-books.

The largest dictionary in the world is "het Woordenboek der Nederlansche Taal (WNT)" (the Dictionary of the Dutch language). It took 134 years to create the dictionary (1864 - 1998). It consists of approximately 400,000 words on 45805 pages in 92000 columns.

A Brief History of English Lexicography

(1) Latin and French Glossaries

YearAuthor /EditorDictionarySize /Type

1440ParvulorumStorehouse (of words) for children or clericsEnglish-Latin

1476CaxtonPrinting in EnglandEnglish-Latin

1480CaxtonFrench-English GlossaryFrench-English

1499CaxtonPromptorium"hard words"

1500Hortus VocabularumGarden of WordsLatin-English

1533John WithalsA Short Dictionary for Yong BeginnersEnglish-Latin

1538Sir Thomas ElyotDictionary (Bibliotheca Eliotae)Latin-English

1565Thomas CooperThesaurus of the Roman Tongue and the BritishFrench-English

(2) Early English Dictionaries: The Seventeenth Century

YearAuthor /EditorDictionarySize /Type

1552Richard HuloetAbecedarium Anglo-LatinumEnglish-Latin-(Fr.)

1582Richard MulcasterElementary8,000 words

1588Thomas ThomasDictionarium Linguae Latinae et AnglicanaeLatin-English

1598John FlorioA World of WordsItalian-English

1604Robert CawdreyA Table Alphabetical2,500 words

1616John BullokarAn English Expositor5,000 words

1623Henry CockeramThe English Dictionary3 parts

1656Thomas BlountGlossographia

1658Edward PhillipsThe New World of English Words

1673Thomas BlountA World of Errors Discovered in the New World of Words

1676Elisha ColesAn English Dictionary25,000 words

(3) The Beginning of Modern Dictionary Practice: The Eighteenth Century

YearAuthor /EditorDictionarySize /Type

1702John KerseyA New English Dictionary28,000 words

1704John HarrisAn Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences

1706John KerseyPhilips's New World of English Words38,000 words

1721Nathan BaileyAn Universal Etymological English Dictionary40,000 words

1727Nathan BaileyAn Universal Etymological English Dictionary Volume II2 parts

1728Ephraim ChambersAn Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences

1730Nathan BaileyDictionarium Britannicum48,000 words

1747Samuel JohnsonPlan of a Dictionary of the English Language

1749Benjamin MartinLingua Britannica Reformata

1755Samuel JohnsonA New Universal English Dictionary40,000 words

(4) Dictionaries of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
YearAuthor /EditorDictionary
1757James BuchananLinguae Britannicae
1764William JohnstonPronouncing and Spelling Dictionary
1764John EntickSpelling Dictionary
1773William KenrickA New Dictionary of the English Language
1780Thomas SheridanA General Dictionary of the English Language
1783Noah WebsterThe American Spelling Book
1791John WalkerCritical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language
1818Henry ToddJohnson's Dictionary
1820Albert ChalmersTodd-Johnson with Walker's Pronunciations
1828Joseph E. WorcesterChalmers's Dictionary
1828Noah WebsterAn American Dictionary of the English Language
1830Joseph WorcesterComprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language
1837Charles RichardsonA New Dictionary of the English Language  (cf. OED)
1841Noah WebsterAn American Dictionary of the English Language     new edition
1846Joseph WorcesterUniversal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language
1857Richard Chenevix TrenchSome Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries             (cf. OED)
1860Joseph WorcesterA Dictionary of the English Language
1864Noah PorterA Dictionary of the English Language
1882Charles AnnandaleThe Century Dictionary
1890George and Charles MerriamInternational Dictionary
 1893Funk & WagnallsStandard Dictionary of the English Language
(5) Dictionaries of the 20th Century

YearAuthor /EditorDictionary

1909George and Charles MerriamInternational Dictionary

1913Funk & WagnallsNew Standard Dictionary of the English Language

1927The New Century Dictionary

1928Oxford English Dictionary

1934Webster's New International Dictionary

1938Irving Lorge & Edward ThorndikeA Semantic Count of English Words

1947American College Dictionary

1947Funk & WagnallsNew College Standard

1953David Guralnik & Joseph FriendWebster's New World Dictionary of the American Language

1961Philip Babcock GoveWebster's Third New International Dictionary

1963Philip Babcock GoveWebster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary