Dictionary – Concept, uses, parts, types and characteristics

We explain what a dictionary is, the parts that compose it and how it is used. In addition, the characteristics of each type of dictionary.

Dictionaries are helpful in learning new languages.

What is a dictionary?

A dictionary is a certain kind of reference book, which provides help regarding the language: the meaning of words, their etymology, synonyms and antonyms, equivalents in other languages, certain very specific meanings of a technical or specialized field, and a gigantic etcetera.

It is not known for sure when dictionaries were invented, but there is reason to believe that the first arose in Ancient Mesopotamia, around the year 2,300 BC. C., as part of the famous Library of Ashurbanipal. It is a set of cuneiform texts that explain the meaning of certain words.

Later, in Ancient Greece in the 4th century BC. C., it is known that the poet Philetas made a compendium of the most complicated terms of Homer’s work, as an aid for his study and understanding, predecessor of the Homeric Lexicon composed by Apollonius in the first century of our era.

Nevertheless, the word dictionary was born in 1220 with a help book for Latin diction composed by the English John de Garland, and soon it happened to replace the term used until then: glossary. The curious thing is that this type of medieval works, generally bilingual (Latin and some vulgar language), were not properly a dictionary, at least as we understand it today, but they are the direct predecessors of this type of books.

Dictionaries are practical books, which can exist in both physical and electronic format, and that are the result, commonly, of the efforts of teams of lexicographer linguists, or similar specialists. They are frequent in academic and school institutions, as well as in learning new languages, and as a typical tool in the profession of professionals such as writers, journalists and lawyers, for example.

Parts of a dictionary

Dictionaries, although they can have very diverse contents, generally consist of the following elements:

  • pulled apart. A section of the dictionary, made up of a set of articles that present a common theme or letter.
  • Article. Each of the respective divisions of the content of a dictionary, that is, its minimum functional units.
  • Entry. Written in bold at the beginning of each article, it contains a lexical piece (that is, a word or term) whose explanation follows throughout the article.
  • Pronunciation. Usually written in international phonetic language, it reproduces the sounds necessary to pronounce the entry correctly.
  • Etymology. In some cases it appears after the entry, in parentheses and in italics, explaining very briefly the historical origin of the term.
  • Definition. The bulk of the article, in which the meaning of the term searched is explained or the information that the reader is looking for is provided, whatever it may be.
  • Preface and indications on its use. Usually located at the beginning of the book, they provide relevant information about how to use it, its composition, etc.
  • Annexes. Many dictionaries usually end with sections specially dedicated to collecting supplementary information, such as conjugations, specialized glossaries, and so on.

How do you use a dictionary?

Dictionaries are quick reference books, that is, they are not read from beginning to end, nor continuously, but rather it opens them to go directly to solve a doubt, find a definition or whatever we are looking for at the moment. Therefore, despite being voluminous books in general, we do not usually spend more than a few minutes at a time.

The dictionaries are organized alphabetically in its entirety, so that to find an entry we must orient ourselves through the brands that it will offer us at the top of the page, or the book index itself, to search for the corresponding letter and, within that section, the entry that interests us.

Once we have found and read what the dictionary has to say, we can resolve the question and close the book, or perhaps carry out a new search as many times as necessary.

Types of dictionaries

Dictionaries can be of many different types, each of which has a specific use within the language, and provides us with a certain type of specialized and specific information. The main types of dictionaries are:

  • Language dictionaries. They are monolingual dictionaries that address a language in general, describing the meaning and meaning of its words, and together with valuable grammatical information. They can be classified into:
    • Normative. They are those who meet the “correct” use of the language, that is, they are governed by the educated norm. Such is the case of the Dictionary of the Language of the Royal Spanish Academy, for example.
    • Practical use. Instead of being governed by the cultured norm of the language, these are dictionaries that face the language from the point of view of its use, that is, from a more practical point of view. This is the case, for example, of the Dictionary of Use of Spanish (DUE) by María Moliner.
    • Of doubts. In this case, they are dictionaries that seek to address and resolve possible doubts regarding the use of the language, its variations and complexities, both for native and foreign speakers. An example is the Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Doubts of the Royal Spanish Academy.
    • Of synonyms and antonyms. As their name implies, they contain instead of definitions of the words (or in addition to them), a set of synonyms and possible antonyms.
  • Bilingual dictionaries. They are books that serve as an intermediary between two languages, establishing correspondences between the same terms in one language and another, so that it can be used to accompany the translation or speech by foreigners of either of the two languages. For example, an English-Spanish / Spanish-English Dictionary.
  • Etymological dictionaries. In this case, the dictionary entries do not necessarily provide a definition, but a history of the term: where it came from, what are original meanings and historical changes, and how the word we use today came to be. The most famous dictionary of this type in Spanish is the Treasury of the Castilian or Spanish language (1611) by Sebastián de Covarrubias y Orozco.
  • Specialized dictionaries. These are dictionaries with a very high level of specialization, that is, for an audience with technical or academic knowledge. Although they are still monolingual dictionaries, their content is oriented not to the common speaker of the language, but to those who learn or practice a specific area of ​​knowledge. For example: a dictionary of medical terms, or a dictionary of computer terms.
  • Encyclopedic dictionaries. Being a cross between dictionary and encyclopedia, these dictionaries offer the reader much more than a brief definition of the word, including the historical, scientific, practical and cultural context associated with the term. In other words, each entry offers a set of informative knowledge (or technical, in the case of a specialized encyclopedic dictionary), which transcends the strictly linguistic.