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dictionary

Introduction

dictionary, published list, in alphabetical order, of the words of a language. In monolingual dictionaries the words are explained and defined in the same language; in bilingual dictionaries they are translated into another language. Modern dictionaries usually also provide phonetic transcriptions, hyphenation, synonyms, derived forms, and etymology. However, a dictionary of a living language can never be complete; old words fall into disuse, new words are constantly created, and those surviving frequently change their meanings. The modern dictionary is often prescriptive rather than descriptive, for it attempts to establish certain forms as preferable. The most remarkable case of this sort is the dictionary of the French Academy, which is both widely admired and ignored. The popular American attitude of the 19th cent. toward dictionaries gave them a nearly sacred authority, but in the 20th cent. the dictionary makers themselves began to replace notions of purity (especially based on etymology) by criteria of use, somewhat ahead of analogous developments in grammar. Because of the unprecedented scientific advances of the 20th cent., many scientific terms have come into popular use and consequently have increased the size of general dictionaries.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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