1.6: §6. Dictionary Practice

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Success in this course will depend, to a great extent, on your effective use of a good English dictionary. Before going any further, make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with the conventions and abbreviations used by LEXICOGRAPHERS (look that word up for starters, if necessary). This is really a matter of getting used to the dictionary of your choice, since the conventions vary somewhat from one authority to the next.

Because there are many fine English dictionaries on the market, you may already own a reliable one that gives you complete satisfaction. If not, here are two popular standards, one British and one American:

The Concise Oxford Dictionary
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Merriam-Webster’s is the best bargain among substantial dictionaries; like its American competitor, Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, it lists the year (or at least the century) when each word is believed to have entered the English language.

That information, and much more, can be found in larger versions of the Oxford dictionaries. If you’ve never browsed in THE Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”), do so at your earliest convenience. This multi-volume set is available at the library (print and online). A useful compromise between the enormous OED and the small Concise Oxford is the highly regarded two-volume abridgement:

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press

Obviously you’ll be using your dictionary to find the definition of new and unfamiliar words, or to clarify the meaning of words about which you’re a little vague. More often, however, you’ll likely be tracing a word’s ETYMOLOGY(the history of its development from the earliest known source). Usually the etymological entry appears in square brackets, immediately after the listing of the word. (But the Concise Oxford Dictionary and some American dictionaries place the etymology at the very end of each definition.) You must make sure that you learn how to read these entries in your own dictionary. It is unfortunate that lexicographers have never adopted a standardized methodology, or even a common system of abbreviations.[1]

In order to stretch your lexicographical muscles, use your dictionary to look up the following words, which have either been mentioned in this chapter or will be used constantly in the weeks ahead:

etymology, etymon, definition, derivative, cognate, semantic, hybrid

Pay particular attention to etymologies; notice, for instance, that the image behind the word derivative is that of the flowing stream, whereas the word cognate denotes a kinship relationship. In what sphere of activity did the word hybrid originate?[2]

1. If you’re ever consulting the complete Oxford English Dictionary, don’t be confused by the rather mysterious abbreviations used to describe the degree of change that words have experienced in entering English: a. = adopted without change of form; ad. = derived by adaptation, with adjustment to English speech-habits; f. = formed on (newly shaped on the basis of the foreign form). ↵
2. As you may know, there are dictionaries entirely devoted to word etymologies. For example, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford University Press); A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Elsevier); and Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (Routledge). ↵

This page titled 1.6: §6. Dictionary Practice is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Peter L. Smith (BCCampus) .