Words in English public website
LING 216 course information
Rice University
Prof S. Kemmer

Dictionaries and Dictionary Entries

A dictionary is fairly large collection of words, listed in alphabetical order, each followed by information about the word. This information contains, minimally, a definition, and usually certain other pieces of information standard for dictionaries.

Although various parts of the ancient world had something like dictionaries going very far back in history, modern dictionaries in Europe evolved in the late 16th and early 17th century from two kinds of reference works for readers: bilingual word lists and "hard word" lists. Hard word lists were designed to help with all the new words entering into the European languages as borrowings (including new coinages and derivations) from Latin and Greek. Several of these types of reference lists were published in English in the 1650s.

Other types of dictionaries eventually followed. One main type was specialists' dictionaries that collected technical and specialist vocabulary from many fields, for example, medical dictionaries. These began to be used and circulated at universities for use of the researchers and teachers there. They were particularly important as the sciences and the scientific method emerged in Europe during the Enlightenment.

In the late 1700s Samuel Johnson produced a dictionary that was one of the first intended to cover as much as possible of the whole lexicon, including the ordinary words like horse, table, idea, feel, and liberty that speakers used every day in speaking, as well as the loanwords coming into use in the written language by an increasingly literate public. The biggest innovation in Johnson's dictionary was that it was intended to DESCRIBE the language as used by speakers and writers, and not to PRESCRIBE how the language was supposed to be used, in the view of the dictionary writer, publisher, or anyone else. English has never had a language academy to prescribe usage. Usage emerged organically from speakers and writers, and the dictionary was intended to reflect this. Samuel Johnson had read a lot of older literature and he recognized that not only spelling and grammar changed, but also word meanings. He saw that language change could not be stopped and thought that many writers who insisted on forms and meanings they thought were the "real" correct usages were actually insisting on archaic forms and/or usages from Latin that were not actually used by native speakers. He accepted change as a normal part of language. Although these are accepted ideas in lexicography and have been for a long time, there is still a folk understanding of language that many people have, that there is one correct form and meaning for words and grammatical units and this is set by some impartial authority that is independent of whatever forms and meanings people actually do use. Actually, forms and meanings are relative to particular varieties of language, and ultimately, the forms speakers use arise and become conventionalized by the speakers themselves, within those varieties. There is still standardization, and publishers and educators set many standard forms, but as the language changes, ultimately the forms give way to new ones.

Noah Webster was the next major figure in the English speaking dictionary world. He saw that he could use language to serve the national(ist) interests of the relatively new United States. After the War of 1812, in particular, he thought that the U.S. should distance itself from Britain, and it could do that by having some distinct ways of spelling things. He thought spelling needed reforming in English anyway, and writing an American Dictionary allowed him to introduce some reforms and have them adopted by the new country. His dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, took almost 30 years to complete and soon became the primary dictionary used in the U.S. Webster was the originator of the -ize, -er, and -or spellings for the traditional -ise, -er, and -our which were used by Chaucer and are still used in British English. The Commonwealth traditionally follows British spelling, but now American spellings are exerting pressure on other varieties, especially in Canadian and Australian English.

Dictionaries began to become part of ordinary households only in the 19th century. Johnson's dictionary was published in editions the middle class could afford by the early 19th century, and in the U.S., soon most people who had more than one book (generally the Bible) had a copy of Webster's dictionary.

In the 1880s Oxford University Press began the New English Dictionary, an enormous undertaking that aimed to record all the words used in the history of the English language. It evolved into the Oxford English Dictionary. The major figure in the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, was James Murray. (See The Professor and the Madman.)

In the later 20th century print dictionaries began to be put into electronic form for ease of updating and for scholarship purposes. In the 1980s electronic dictionaries became available on disks or pre-installed on hard drives; in the 1990s they began to appear on the web and have since proliferated online.

Understanding dictionary entries

The following is an entry from the Oxford English Dictionary online, given verbatim.

Ginormous, a. [f. GI(GANTIC a. + E)NORMOUS a.] Very large, simply enormous; excessive in size, amount, etc. (esp. in comparison with one's expectation). 1948 in Partridge Dict. Forces' Slang. 1962 W. GRANVILLE Dict. Sailors' Slang 53/2 Ginormous, acronymous adjective descriptive of something really impressive: a brush with the enemy; a raid upon the enemy's shipping or coastline, or merely a particularly 'heavy' party in the mess. 1970 A. REID Confessions of Hitch-hiker vi. 45 We went to a posh cafe; ...The prices were ginormous. 1976 Scotsman 20 Nov. 10/2 How about froggies filled with pot-pourri from small to gi-normous, as Just Us describe them. 1977 Economist 8 Oct. 98/3 The state company Egam, declared bust last spring,..is going to cost considerably more than the 500 billion pounds...earmarked by the government last June, probably a ginormous 1,700 billion. 1986 Sunday Express (Colour Suppl.) 23 Mar. 70/3 Since Brands Hatch, doors have opened and it's possible to make gi-normous money.

The entry is composed of the keyword, its part of speech, the etymology, the definition, and a number of citations or quotations. These are the principle components of entries in most dictionaries. Many dictionaries also include a pronunciation, placed after the keyword and its part of speech.


The keyword is simply the word to be defined. Keywords are often used for cross-referencing in other words' definitions as well. Sometimes keywords are not whole words, but bound morphemes (-ism, anti- etc.), because sometimes people need to look up morphemes to see what they mean, too.

Part of speech

The part of speech gives some information about how the word is used in a sentence, i.e. its linguistic function. English has a part of speech system similar to that of most other European languages, with nouns, verbs and adjectives constituting the three major word classes, and three or more secondary, grammatical word classes like adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

In the ginormous entry, a. stands for adjective. This is part of the OED's space-saving abbreviations. Other dictionaries use Adj. or ADJ to make the part of speech more instantly recognizable. The following table shows abbreviations for parts of speech given in the OED and the corresponding ones typically used by linguists.
OED Linguists Part of speech
n. N noun
a. Adj. adjective
v. V verb
ad. Adv. adverb
p. Prep. preposition
c. Conj. conjunction

Usage label

The OED labels ginormous as slang. This information is to help people use it appropriately. It would not be appropriate to use the word in a formal piece of writing or a formal address, for example. Usage labels include regional usage information (e.g. U.S. or U.K.), genres/levels of formality, and labels for whether the word is outmoded (e.g. the label 'archaic').


The etymology part, shown between square brackets, shows the source of the source: its formation and/or its path to English from other languages. [More to come]


The characterization of all the senses of a word that the OED has identified. These are numbered in the entry. The more numbered senses, the more polysemous the word is, in general. [more to come]


For each entry, the OED collects the earliest published citation that its editors and contributors can find.

What can we learn from the citations of ginormous? The word is fairly new in English, with its first citation found only after the second world war. It is old enough and widespread enough to have been noticed and collected by the OED, with numerous citations. From the first two citations, we learn that ginormous was, in its early years, British military slang (Partridge and Granville are two British slang collectors of the 20th century). Probably navy slang, since it appeared in a dictionary of Sailors' slang. The dictionary still considers it slang, as we saw in the usage label. The U.K. origin is supported by the usage label UK INFORMAL in the Freesearch online dictionary www.freesearch.co.uk.

Based on my own observation (S.K.), I believe the word spread from military to young people's slang in Britain and from there also to American youth slang. I first noticed it in Britain in the 1980s (in newspapers quoting pop musicians and other icons of youth), and heard it in the U.S. only in the mid-1990s. It is still spreading in the U.S. and still felt as a neologism, judging by the fact that numerous students have collected it in their Word Journals in recent years.

© Suzanne Kemmer