How Do You Write a Dictionary?

I’d be interested in any information on the process one goes through to pen an entire dictionary. How in the world do you come up with a list of all the words in a given language?

“My hovercraft is full of eels.”

dictionary (noun), plural -nar*ies


[Medieval Latin dictionarium, from Late Latin diction-, dictio word, from Latin, speaking]

First appeared 1526

1 : a reference book containing words usu. alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses

2 : a reference book listing alphabetically terms or names important to a particular subject or activity along with discussion of their meanings and applications

3 : a reference book giving for words of one language equivalents in another

4 : a list (as of items of data or words) stored in a computer for reference (as for information retrieval or word processing)

Terence in Marietta, GA

Be someone’s hero

Well, most dictionaries today are either dictionaries of a certain subject, for which you would have a team of experts in that feild brainstorm for a list of terms and then continually append it, or a dictionary that has been around so long that they have had time to add in wordsin the following editions.
To write a new dictionary for today, one just takes an old dictionary, changes the definitions around and ad some new words in.

Here’s a hint: you start with…A

If you really want to write your own dictionary, you do it the old-fashioned way. You start reading your source material, seperating out all the words used, alphabetize the list, then define them all. Let’s use this message board as an example. Estimating that there are approximately a hundred thousand messages that have been posted here and the average one is two hundred words. This means twenty million words have been posted here. Obviously most of them are duplicates (and many of them are proper nouns), but you could read every post and create a list of maybe eighty thousand different words. You know all these words are in current usage because they were all used here within the last year. Now all you have to do is alphabetize your list, figure out what each word means, write down your definitions, and publish it.

Simon Winchester wrote a book called The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a pretty good read and tells you just about everything you could want to know about this subject.

Torgo, check out this page and click on the links while you’re there.

Thanks, Porpentine, that’s the book I thought of as soon as I saw the OP, but I would have had to look it up to get the author’s name.

And thanks for the link, Strainger. I knew M-W was out there, but hadn’t visited.

On arelated point, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The Oxford English Dictionary is going to be online. But not cheap. :frowning: See .

Bob the Random Expert
“If we don’t have the answer, we’ll make one up.”

i’ve always liked Dr. Johnson’s definition of a lexicographer:

“A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer, having written his
dictionary, comes to be considered “as one having authority,” whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statue. Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as “obsolete” or “obsolescent” and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its restoration to favor – whereby the process of
improverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that “it isn’t in the dictionary” – although down to the time of the first lexicographer (Heaven
forgive him!) no author ever had used a word that was in the dictionary. In the golden prime and high noon of English speech; when
from the lips of the great Elizabethans fell words that made their own meaning and carried it in their very sound; when a Shakespeare and a Bacon were possible, and the language now rapidly perishing at one end and slowly renewed at the other was in vigorous growth and hardy preservation – sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion
– the lexicographer was a person unknown, the dictionary a creation which his Creator had not created him to create.

God said: “Let Spirit perish into Form,”
And lexicographers arose, a swarm!
Thought fled and left her clothing, which they took,
And catalogued each garment in a book.
Now, from her leafy covert when she cries:
“Give me my clothes and I’ll return,” they rise
And scan the list, and say without compassion:
“Excuse us – they are mostly out of fashion.”

–From The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce