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Things You Never Thought You’d Say: Are Dictionaries Dying?

There is often much conflict about which words rightfully and wrongfully end up in the Oxford Dictionary each year. Recent areas of conflict have been the Word Of 2015, which was the winky face emoji, and a very new entry which is the questionable Chinese helicopter, already receiving complaints in the form of a petition requesting that this derogatory term is removed from the hallowed pages of the dictionary.

But what is the purpose – and importance – of a dictionary today?

Let’s begin with a look back at the history of dictionaries and see where it takes us.

What is a dictionary?

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Put simply, a dictionary is an alphabetical collection of words that either give definitions of meanings in one language, or a direct translation of words into a second language. Dictionaries often include other things to help you with language, such as phonetics, pronunciations, and etymologies (the history of words).

The first recorded dictionaries date back to Sumerian times, around 2300 BCE, and these earliest of forms were bilingual dictionaries. The term dictionary was invented by Englishman John of Garland in 1220, and the first purely alphabetical English dictionary, called A Table Alphabeticall, was written by Robert Cawdrey in 1604.

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English language (1755) became the authority on the English language, and served as a reference point for word definitions for around 150 years.

Oxford University Press

The Oxford University Press (OEP) is the largest university press in the world, and the second youngest (second to Cambridge, no less. Is it any wonder these two universities are constantly at rivalry?). It began writing and releasing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1884, and this work took over 50 years to be completed. The complete OED was released in twelve volumes in 1928.

The Oxford Dictionary is still the most trusted and complete dictionary in use today, with past contributors to its work including Tolkien himself, which somehow makes the whole thing feel that much more trustworthy.

Photo via Wikimedia

Because language is a constantly evolving entity, the OEP has also had to evolve with the times, and that includes with changes in technology. is the online version of the dictionary, with more than 80,000 words added in 2015 from the paper version. If you think dictionaries can’t be vibrant, passionate things, just take a look at the about page on the website.

American English

Photo via Wikimedia

Of course, any American reading the Oxford Dictionary will find fault or at least amusement with spellings such as colour and wagon, and potential hilarity at words like courgette (zucchini) and aubergine (eggplant). American Noah Webster began his own dictionary of American English in 1806, and completed it during a year abroad in 1925. The online version of this dictionary is Merriam-Webster and has over 240,000 word definitions in its database. Webster has become synonymous with dictionary in the United States, especially as the name has not been trademarked.

It is uncertain if Americans take their dictionaries a little more seriously than the English, although significantly more dictionary definitions of words have been cited in US Supreme Courts than the UK alternative (225 in America to 4 in the UK – read here). Read into that what you will.

The invasion of slang

Since the Oxford University Press is so thorough with its constant updating of the OED, it probably should not come as a surprise that the dictionary itself is often in the media. Every new update appears to bring out the English language pedants, with rage in recent years thrown at dictionary additions such as cakepop, derp and squee.

But are we clinging too tightly to the old ways by arguing against such additions? After all, the English language, as with any other language, is constantly evolving, and evolving at an even faster rate than ever before thanks to the internet. As an example, on fleek was seen everywhere on the web throughout 2015, but has slunk away into a corner embarrassed at itself and rarely used in 2016.

Slang such as cool and dude never seem to age, but if you really want to stay relevant and up to date with your slang, we presume that you are already probably a huge fan of Urban Dictionary, which reading through from time to time is often quite a thorough education in itself.

In short, slang is here to stay, since slang is in everyday use. So why shouldn’t slang be in our dictionaries?

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The importance of purpose

So what is the purpose of a dictionary? At the beginning of this article, we surmised that a dictionary can be used to look up the definition of a word, or to give a direct translation of a word into another language. But a dictionary has become something more than that.

What appears to have changed most in terms of a dictionary’s purpose is not merely to provide the answer, but almost to keep a track of how language is constantly evolving. We do not look to dictionaries as the be-all-and-end-all of language anymore; dictionaries have become more of a record of our ways of adjusting to our constantly moving lives.

Places to go, things to do. Photo via Wikipedia


The latest OED update included words such as vlog and bruv, we’re excited to see what comes next. So, the question remains: are dictionaries dying or are they just evolving?