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Reference work that lists words, usually in alphabetical order, and gives their meanings and often other information such as pronunciations, etymologies, and variant spellings. The earliest dictionaries, such as those created by Greeks of the 1st century AD, emphasized changes that had occurred in the meanings of words over time. The close juxtaposition of languages in Europe led to the appearance, from the early Middle Ages on, of many bilingual and multilingual dictionaries. The movement to produce an English dictionary was partly prompted by a desire for wider literacy, so that common people could read Scripture, and partly by a frustration that no regularity in spelling existed in the language. The first purely English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabetical (1604), treating some 3,000 words. In 1746–47 Samuel Johnson undertook the most ambitious English dictionary to that time, a list of 43,500 words. Noah Webster's dictionary of Americanisms in the early 19th century sprang from a recognition of the changes and variations within language. The immense Oxford English Dictionary was begun in the late 19th century. Today there are various levels of dictionaries, general-purpose dictionaries being most common. Modern lexicographers (dictionary makers) describe current and past language but rarely prescribe its use.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on dictionary, visit Britannica.com.