12 Things You Might Not Know About Dictionaries

StanRohrer, iStock
StanRohrer, iStock

At first glance, the dictionary seems pretty straightforward. Words are listed alphabetically, and you simply locate the right page and scan until you find the word you’re looking for. But there’s a lot you might not know about the dictionary, such as how new words are added and why Noah Webster learned Sanskrit to write his dictionary. So without further ado, read on to discover a dozen things you might not know about various dictionaries.

1. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO ADD A NEW WORD.

very old dictionary cover
Housing Works Thrift Shops, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When people use a word or phrase frequently enough that it appears in widely read print and online publications, lexicographers take notice. First, they collect citations of the word, documenting the source it appeared in and recording its contextual meaning. Then, lexicographers conduct database research, searching for evidence that people from diverse backgrounds have used the word over a period of time. Finally, dictionary editors review the evidence and decide whether or not to include the new word in an upcoming edition of the dictionary. Thanks to this lengthy process, you can now find modern words such as manspread, presstitute, and athleisure in several dictionaries.

2. THE FIRST ENGLISH DICTIONARIES ONLY INCLUDED DIFFICULT WORDS.

Dictionary page with the word 'neanderthaloid.'
Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

We think of dictionaries as comprehensive tomes containing everything from antelope and apple to zeitgeist and zootrophy, but early English dictionaries didn't contain any simple, common words. In the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks in part to the Renaissance's classical influence, English doubled its vocabulary by incorporating words from other languages. People needed to consult word lists to look up these new, difficult words that they hadn't heard before. In 1604, a teacher named Robert Cawdrey compiled a list of words into A Table Alphabeticall, which defined difficult English words borrowed from Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew. Throughout the 17th century, other English men published lists of hard words with easy to understand definitions, and people turned to the dictionary to learn these words.

3. NOAH WEBSTER LEARNED 26 LANGUAGES TO WRITE HIS DICTIONARY.

Handwritten drafts of dictionary entries by Noah Webster, circa 1790-1800.
Handwritten drafts of dictionary entries by Noah Webster, circa 1790-1800.
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although Noah Webster wasn't the first American to produce a dictionary, his name has become synonymous with the American dictionary. Hoping to help create a uniquely American lexicon, with Americanized spelling and pronunciation of words, Webster wrote An American Dictionary of the English Language. To thoroughly research word origins and sources, Webster got serious about becoming an etymology expert. He learned 26 languages, including Sanskrit and Old English, to write his dictionary. Published in 1828, it contained 70,000 entries and included the first definitions of "American" words such as chowder and skunk.

4. THE FIRST MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY COST SIX DOLLARS.

Tattered page of an old dictionary.
GCShutter, iStock

After Webster died in 1843, George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to revise Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged. The two brothers printed and sold books in Springfield, Massachusetts, and their intellectual property purchase paid off. In the fall of 1847, the Merriams issued the first revised Webster dictionary for six dollars. The book sold well, and the G. & C. Merriam Co. was eventually renamed Merriam-Webster, Inc. in 1982. Merriam-Webster continues to publish popular print and electronic dictionaries today.

5. IT TOOK ALMOST 50 YEARS TO CREATE THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY.

Picture of a dinosaur in the dictionary.
huppypie, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1857, the Philological Society of London first called for a comprehensive English language dictionary, including words from the 12th century to the present. In 1879, the Philological Society joined forces with Oxford University Press, and work commenced. In 1884, Oxford University Press published the first part of the dictionary (A to Ant), and the final volume was published in 1928. Called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the dictionary listed more than 400,000 words and phrases. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the most respected and widely used dictionaries.

6. J.R.R. TOLKIEN RESEARCHED WORD ETYMOLOGIES FOR THE OED.

Phrase by JRR Tolkien
Corey Taratuta, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

After serving in World War I, J.R.R. Tolkien worked as an editor's assistant on the OED. His job was to research the etymologies of certain words that started with the letter w. Tolkien also composed multiple drafts of definitions for words such as waggle, walnut, walrus, and waistcoat. After his time at the OED, Tolkien went on to work as an English professor and write The Lord of the Rings. Subsequently, the OED has added terms that Tolkien himself coined, such as hobbit, mithril, and mathom.

7. SOMETIMES FAKE WORDS MAKE THEIR WAY INTO THE DICTIONARY.

Magnifying glass looking at a dictionary.
Alessio_slo, iStock

Due to human error, a handful of fake words have appeared in dictionaries over the centuries. Some words, like phantomnation, which appeared in an 1864 edition of Webster's, are the result of missing hyphens. Others are typographical errors. A 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary defined dord as density, the result of confusion over spacing. Some dictionary editors have even intentionally included fake words, such as esquivalience in The New Oxford American Dictionary, to protect their copyright.

8. THE OED NEEDS YOUR HELP.

Copies of the Oxford English Dictionary
mrpolyonymousvia, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although many scholars consider the OED to be the definitive authority on dictionaries, the OED needs your help. At any given time, the dictionary's editors are researching the history of certain words and phrases, and The OED Appeals allows the public to submit evidence (via the comments section) of the earliest record of certain words. Camouflage and Arnold Palmer are two entries that the OED has recently researched, so if you have old books or magazines that mention some weird word, let the OED know. You might just see your contribution in the dictionary's next edition.

9. SAMPLE SENTENCES FROM DICTIONARIES CAN MAKE INTERESTING SHORT STORIES.

A pair of reading glasses on a dictionary.
frankieleon, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

You might think that all those sample sentences in the dictionary are random, but you'd only be partially right. The phrases are deliberately chosen to show the word in a clear context with other words that it's often associated with, and are ideally so boring that you don't even think twice about them. Illustrator Jez Burrows has connected these random sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary into short stories. "Often I’ll find at least one [word] that makes a good jumping-off point and I’ll start to flesh out some sort of vague narrative, then work backwards to imagine what sort of words might give rise to the sentences I'm looking for," Burrows said of his process.

10. A LOT OF WEIRD DICTIONARIES EXIST.

row of dictionaries
Liz West, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although most people are familiar with Webster, the OED, and Dictionary.com, there are plenty of obscure or downright bizarre dictionaries. For example, you can find plenty of rhyming dictionaries and reverse dictionaries (that are organized by a theme rather than alphabetized). Scrolling through Wye's Dictionary Of Improbable Words: All-Vowel Words And All-Consonant Words might help you find some uncommon words to win your next Scrabble game. And Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words contains weird English words that have appeared in at least one dictionary in the past. For example, you might learn that junkettaceous means worthless and cuggermugger means whispered gossiping.

11. URBAN DICTIONARY CAPITALIZES OFF OF BEING A SLANG HAVEN.

Entry in the Urban Dictionary
Terry Freedman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary, the online, crowdsourced listing of millions of slang words and phrases, is beloved by middle schoolers and anyone trying to understand the latest slang terms. But Urban Dictionary is more than a dictionary. It also has an online store that sells mugs, T-shirts, an official card game, and plush dolls inspired by dirty phrases that the dictionary has helped to popularize (like Golden Shower and Donkey Punch). If you're unfamiliar with the definitions of those disgusting phrases, we'll let you look them up, but don’t say we didn't warn you.

12. A CALIFORNIA SCHOOL DISTRICT CONSIDERED BANNING MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY.

mrd00dman, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2010, a school district in Southern California temporarily removed all copies of the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate Edition from elementary school classrooms. Why remove the dictionary? After a parent told the principal of Oak Meadows Elementary School that the dictionary contained an explicit definition of a sex act, the school district decided to remove the books. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents decided that the dictionary was age-appropriate, and the copies of Merriam-Webster were returned to the classroom. Here's hoping that parent never discovers Urban Dictionary!

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary

iStock/Jasmina007
iStock/Jasmina007

Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

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