The secrets inside your dictionary

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been watching the Writing the OED series on YouTube, fantasizing about what it would be like to work for the Oxford English Dictionary. Imagine going to work every day to study and write about the history and meaning of words.

(Please, sir, may I come in and work on your dictionary?)

Recently, I’ve been studying the different kinds and styles of dictionaries. And though they are ubiquitous in our profession, many writers and editors may not be familiar with all the types and styles of dictionaries. Here’s a summary.

Language dictionaries
Language dictionaries come in two types: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive dictionaries describe how words should be used and attempt to establish correct forms of language. Their entries may include added information telling readers that certain words are “sometimes offensive” or “nonstandard.” Merriam-Webster and American Heritage are considered prescriptive, according to Wikipedia. For example, the entry for “irregardless” in Merriam-Webster will include the definition and a “usage discussion.”

The OED and Webster’s are descriptive, meaning they describe how words are used. Descriptive dictionaries offer little commentary on “appropriate” usage.

The prescriptive/descriptive issue is controversial. Prescriptivists argue that documenting “nonstandard” usage in dictionaries causes the language to deteriorate. Descriptivists maintain that dictionaries “are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define.”

Though it is a descriptive dictionary, the OED is a historical dictionary that includes the history of individual words “traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to films scripts and cookery books.” The OED is the longest dictionary, with descriptions of more than 600,000 words.

Subject dictionaries
In addition to language dictionaries, there are subject dictionaries—music, fine arts, literature, medicine, economics, engineering. You name a profession, and there’s a dictionary dedicated to defining the language of that profession.

Specialty dictionaries
There are dictionaries of rhyming words, famous quotations and sayings, slang dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, and dictionaries of foreign terms. There are biographical dictionaries. There are even dictionaries for bad spellers, such as Random House Webster’s Pocket Bad Speller’s Dictionary and Webster’s New Word Pocket Misspeller’s Dictionary.

And we can’t forget satirical dictionaries, such as The Devil’s Dictionary, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and the Cynic’s Dictionary. The Dictionary of Clichés, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Dictionary of Bullshit are other favorites.

As tools of our trade, dictionaries offer more than just spelling advice. “Look it up” and you will find little-known definitions, etymology, and even advice on “appropriate” usage— irregardless of which dictionary you choose.

This article first appeared on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

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