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date: 12 May 2021


Abstract and Keywords

The selection of topics and their presentation is explained. Part I considers the synchronic dictionary, especially three characteristic types: dictionaries for the general readership (for many people ‘the dictionary’); monolingual dictionaries intended for L2 learners; bilingual dictionaries. They are typically for a mass market, produced by commercial publishers, and electronic corpora are central to their production today. Part II deals with historical dictionaries, typically edited within an academic institution and published by an academic press, for a more specialist readership. The diachronic perspective brings structural and presentational challenges, distinguishing ‘diachronic lexicography’ from ‘synchronic lexicography’. Part III examines important types of specialist dictionaries and their salient qualities and methodologies, what sets each specialist area apart, and what perspectives it brings to the wider lexicographical world. Part IV examines topics which have implications for various different types of lexicography, as well as challenges and debates that cross the boundaries of sub-fields.

Keywords: lexicographers, users of dictionaries, lexicography, learners' dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, publishers, historical dictionaries, synchrony, diachrony, specialist lexicography

A book of this sort needs little in the way of formal introduction. Few people need to be told, in the broadest terms, what a dictionary is, or what lexicographers do—and answering both of those questions in less broad terms, from a variety of different viewpoints, is the business of most of the rest of this book. The thirty-seven contributions in this volume together constitute a guide to what are, in the editor’s view, the most significant contours in the geography of the lexicographical world, as well as offering a series of eye-witness accounts of the major issues confronting both lexicographers and the users of dictionaries today. Nonetheless, it is likely that any reader who has come to this handbook relatively new to the world of lexicography will appreciate a few initial words of orientation, on what this book does and does not set out to cover, and why it has been structured as it has—and it is likely also that the same questions will be of interest to those readers who are far from neophytes in this field.

The structural divisions of the first two parts of this handbook reflect the major distinctive types of lexicography found today. Part I considers the synchronic dictionary, and especially three characteristic types of synchronic dictionary:

  1. (1) the dictionary for a general readership (many people’s conception of ‘the dictionary’);

  2. (2) the monolingual dictionary intended for L2 learners;

  3. (3) the bilingual dictionary.

These are placed together so that, after their distinctive features have been set out, the many common areas of methodology can be considered together, in particular the central role of the corpus in lexicography of this type today. Such dictionaries normally share some other features as well: they are all usually synchronic, that is to say, they deal with a single chronological period of language use, almost always the period in which they are produced; additionally, they are typically intended for a mass market, and produced by commercial publishers.

(p. 2) The historical dictionary is treated separately in Part II, to reflect its very different methodology and approach. Historical dictionaries are typically edited within an academic institution and published on its behalf by an academic press, and are typically intended for a more specialist readership (although there are exceptions—and indeed what is perhaps the world’s best-known historical dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, is not entirely typical in either of these respects). More fundamentally, the diachronic perspective of a historical dictionary produces structural and presentational challenges that are quite different from those of synchronic dictionaries, so that one can identify methods and procedures that broadly distinguish ‘diachronic lexicography’ from ‘synchronic lexicography’.

Although they have been picked out because of their importance and their influence, the four major types of dictionary discussed in Parts I and II come to much less than the total sum of lexicography. In Part III a set of slightly shorter chapters examine some of the most important types of specialist dictionaries and their salient qualities and methodologies. Contributors have been invited to highlight what sets apart a particular area of specialist lexicography in which they have a particular interest (as scholarly commentators or practitioners or both), but also how that area connects with the wider concerns and methodologies of the lexicographical world. I hope that what emerges above all from this section is how all dictionaries ultimately form part of an interconnected network of information about language and languages. (This last point explains the inclusion of what some purists may consider an interloper, in the form of a chapter on thesauruses.)

Part IV examines some topics which are common to or have implications for various different types of lexicography, as well as some of the challenges and debates that cross the boundaries of various sub-fields. As such, the chapters in this section all take up and develop in more depth themes that have necessarily been touched on in a number of the earlier chapters. The final two chapters take up themes that, in very different ways, typify the role and place of dictionaries in the wider world: in the case of Hilary Nesi’s contribution, how the changing digital environment is having very practical effects on how dictionaries are both used and produced, while Stefan Dollinger examines some of the political, historical, and social factors that come into play in the editing and publication of dictionaries of national varieties of international languages.

Some readers may feel that historical dictionaries, and dictionaries with a diachronic slant (such as those describing the origins of place-names or personal names, or etymological dictionaries), receive a surprising amount of attention in this book, particularly since many shorter overviews of lexicography squeeze such topics into a very small space indeed, or even omit them entirely. The intention here is to provide the space for a much needed dialogue between two different parts of the dictionary world today: the synchronic dictionary, generally having a much wider reader base, and often subject to considerable (and perhaps simultaneously stimulating and constricting) commercial pressures; and the historical dictionary, rightly or wrongly regarded by many as the ‘prestige’ dictionary par excellence, but also associated by some with old-fashioned methods, academicism, stuffiness, or even a (p. 3) certain hauteur. This book sets out to provide the space for each of these traditions to be explored in detail and to show at least some of the variety of approaches to be found in each tradition today; it also, of course, has the deliberate intention of highlighting not just what distinguishes these two traditions, but also of drawing into focus the very many similarities in both the challenges and opportunities each faces in the contemporary environment.

Nearly all of the contributions in this book are from people who have practical experience of lexicographical work. A large number are from people who are lexicographers first and foremost, and who have been encouraged to draw on their own practical experience in their contributions here. Accordingly, alongside the overviews that would be expected of any handbook, many of the chapters present longer or shorter case studies arising from the contributors’ practical work. I hope that these will serve to give the readers of this book a feeling for the practice of lexicography, as well as a direct insight into the kinds of decisions made in different parts of the lexicographical world on a daily basis.

The main focus of this book is the world of lexicography today (whether synchronic or diachronic), not the history of lexicography, but in many important areas some awareness of history helps inform an understanding of the contemporary scene. The introductory chapters on major dictionary types by Béjoint, Heuberger, Fontenelle, and Considine do each discuss the history and development of the dictionary type in question (respectively dictionaries for general users, dictionaries for learners, bilingual dictionaries, and historical dictionaries), as well as current issues affecting each of these dictionary types. A specially commissioned annotated chronology of major events in the history of lexicography by John Considine at the end of this volume may be a useful aid to placing historical references elsewhere in the book in context. Had the primary aim been to concentrate not on the state of lexicography today but on how lexicography came to be as it is today, it is likely that the following major shifts in the tectonic plates of the lexicographical world would bulk large in the structure of this book:

  • Many members of the general public think not of ‘a dictionary’ but of ‘the dictionary’, by which is meant a general dictionary of a language, regarded as a source of authority on the meaning of words and on many other matters concerning language. Nevertheless, it was only very slowly that the general dictionary of a language emerged as a fundamental type, alongside the specialist lexicon of hard words, or of the technical vocabulary of a particular field, and alongside the bilingual dictionary. Here, justly or unjustly, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 has long been regarded as the most significant landmark publication in the history of general dictionaries of English.

  • The outstanding development of the nineteenth century was the historical dictionary, with an associated empirical methodology that has stood ever since as one of the cornerstones of historical linguistics, and which long exercised a deep influence on the structure and design of most other dictionary types.

  • (p. 4) In the mid-twentieth century, learners’ dictionaries broke new ground in describing typical patterns of usage, supported by examples of typical use, as well as by extensive coverage of questions of grammar and usage; they also drew new attention to the type of language employed in definitions.

  • From the 1980s onwards, developments in corpus linguistics enabled lexicographers to go much further in identifying typical word behaviour and patterns of collocation, heralding a revolution in the compilation and design of all synchronic dictionaries.

  • From the late 1980s, and in earnest from the turn of the millennium, digital publication (at first on CD-ROMs and later on the web) and the availability of electronic text databases began to transform both the compilation and the publication of historical dictionaries, and began to enable users to pose and answer new questions using those dictionaries.

  • From the early 2000s, online publication has transformed access to all types of dictionaries, but traditional print sales of most dictionary types have been hit hard, and traditional dictionaries that have migrated from print to the digital world have frequently found themselves co-existing with new types of lexical resources, and often competing with them for readers.

There is more that unites than divides all lexicography, and this book has been devised and structured with the underlying assumption that every chapter contributes something to building an overview of the wide and varied world of lexicography today. All sections of this book would have been almost infinitely extendible, but it is perhaps in Part III that absences will be felt most keenly; in a project of this size, it is inevitable that some contributions will fall by the wayside, and I particularly regret the loss of chapters on dictionaries of sign language, and on the particular challenges faced by lexicographers of endangered languages, of less-used languages, or of languages spoken in less well-resourced communities (for instance, many of the languages of Africa).1 Just as inevitably, other readers will doubtless feel that other topics could or should have had a greater claim for inclusion than some that have been included; every editor has to make difficult choices, and the world of lexicography is so large and varied that even in a volume of this size a very selective approach has had to be taken. I would encourage all readers to make good use of the pointers to the wider literature on lexicography in every chapter in this volume, and to treat this handbook as an invitation to further exploration.


(1) This introduction has avoided singling out any among the many good introductions and surveys covering various specific aspects of lexicography that exist today; the best are all referred to at appropriate places in the individual chapters in this volume. However, an exception can and should be made for these topics singled out here as omitted from this volume: on dictionaries of sign language, see Schermer (2006), Zwitserlood (2010), and Zwitserlood et al. (2013); for some orientation in recent work on lexicography of endangered languages, less-used languages, and less well-resourced languages, see variously Haviland (2006), Ogilvie (2010, 2011), Popkema (2010), Mosel (2011), Prinsloo (2012), and Benjamin and Radetzky (2014a, 2014b).