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English Monolingual Lexicography. Patrick Hanks formerly Chief Editor, Current English Dictionaries, Oxford University Press. Outline. The purpose of a monolingual dictionary History of English monolingual dictionaries Some milestones Examples of earlier English lexicography

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english monolingual lexicography

English Monolingual Lexicography

Patrick Hanks

formerly Chief Editor,

Current English Dictionaries,

Oxford University Press

  • The purpose of a monolingual dictionary
  • History of English monolingual dictionaries
    • Some milestones
    • Examples of earlier English lexicography
  • Writing definitions and explanations
  • Selecting and arranging entries
  • Etymologies and word histories
R. Cawdrey (1604): A Table alphabeticall
  • explains “hard words”

S. Johnson (1755): Dictionary

  • Citations from literature. Full vocabulary coverage.

N. Webster (1828): American Dictionary of the English Language

  • A nationalistic adventure. Webster’s debt to Johnson.
  • “consulting the opinions of some gentlemen in whose judgment I had trust” (seeking agreement on definitions – convention)

J. A. H. Murray et al. (1884-1928): OED

  • Historical principles. Interaction with literary, medieval and Indo-European scholarship.

Isaac Funk (1894):Funk and Wagnall’sStandard Dictionary of the English Language.

  • put the “most important current definition” first.

Merriam Webster’s Second New International Dictionary(1933)

  • Monumental. Many discursive, quasi-encyclopedic explanations.
lexicography is accretive
Lexicography is accretive

One dictionary builds on another.

  • William Dwight Witney (1891): The Century Dictionary
    • “neither in meaning nor in form is language to be dominated by its past”
  • Clarence Barnhart (1947): American College Dictionary (1947)
  • Jess Stein and Laurence Urdang (1966): Random House Dictionary
  • Patrick Hanks (1971): Hamlyn Dictionary (UK)
  • Arthur Delbridge (1981): Macquarie Dictionary (Australia)

All these dictionaries attempt to “put the modern meaning first”.

(Without corpus evidence, it is hard to decide what is the “modern meaning”.)

some 20th century english dictionaries
Some 20th-century English dictionaries

W. Geddie (1901):Chambers 20th-Century Dictionary

  • A vast ragbag. Many rare Scottish dialect terms. Some witty definitions, e.g.

“éclair, a confection long in shape but short in duration”

H. W. Fowler (1911): Concise Oxford Dictionary

  • A distillation of OED. Interesting approach to sense groupings.

P. Hanks (1979):Collins English Dictionary

  • Coverage of technical vocabulary and names. Guidance on usage.

P. Hanks and J. Pearsall (1998):New Oxford Dictionary of English

  • Corpus-based and citation-based. Distinguishes core senses from subsenses. Major vocabulary surveys, e.g. of languages, flora and fauna, technology etc. Syntactic information. Corpus-based guidance on usage.
some efl dictionaries
Some EFL dictionaries

A.S. Hornby (1947): Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

  • Pedagogical. Gives syntax, e.g. verb patterns, count vs. uncount nouns.

P. Procter (1978): Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

  • Restricted defining vocabulary. More elaborate syntax.
  • Semantic fields in the electronic version.

J. M. Sinclair, P. Hanks, et al. (1987): Cobuild

  • Corpus-based; real-language examples. Full-sentence definitions, showing how to use the word normally and naturally.

P. Procter (1993): Cambridge International Dictionary of English

  • Corpus-based; gives syntagmatics and semantic fields.

M. Rundell (2001): Macmillan English Dictionary

  • Much pedagogical help with vocabulary building.
the first english dictionaries were bi and multi lingual
The first English dictionaries were bi- and multi-lingual

ThomasThomas. 1587. Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae. [13th edition 1631]

Richard Percyvale (1591):Bibliotheca Hispanica. Containing a Grammar, with a Dictionarie in Spanish, English and Latine, gathered out of divers good Authors: very profitable for the studious of the Spanish toong.

John Minsheu:Ductor in Linguas (1617). [Spanish]

Randle Cotgrave (1611):A dictionarie of the French and English tongues.

John Florio:World of Words (1598) and New World of Words (1611) [Italian]

the first monolingual english dictionary
The first monolingual English dictionary

Robert Cawdrey (1604): A Table Alphabeticall … of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latin, or French, etc. … gathered for the benefit and help of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons

why for the benefit of ladies 1 historical background
Why “for the benefit of ladies”? 1: historical background
  • The English language was “softened up” by the Norman invasion (1066). [Contrast German]
  • Norman French: the language of the law.
  • Medieval Latin: the language of the Church and of scholarship.
  • Early Modern English: the vernacular of the peasantry (but also Chaucer)
  • Not much literary writing between Chaucer (died 1400) and Shakespeare (born 1564).
why for the benefit of ladies 2 english in the renaissance
Why “for the benefit of ladies”? 2: English in the Renaissance
  • Renaissance vocabulary: thousands of learned words (‘inkhorn terms’) were imported into English from Latin.
  • Establishment of Protestantism under Edward VI reigned 1547-53 (died age 16).
  • King Edward VI Grammar Schools; other traditional boys’ public schools (e.g. Eton).
  • No education for girls.
entries from cawdey 1604
Entries from Cawdey 1604

alchimie,the art of turning other mettals into gold

alien,a stranger

alienate,to estrange, or with-drawe the mind, or to make a thing another mans

allegorie,similitude, a misticall speech, more then the bare letter

allegiance, obedience of a subiect

allusion,meaning and pointing to another matter then is spoken in words

allude,to speake one thing that hath resemblence and respect to another

altercation,debate, wrangling, or contention



ambage,long circumstance of words

from johnson 1755 1
From Johnson 1755 (1)


1.the more sublime and occult part of chymystry, which proposes, for its object, the transmutation of metals, and other important operations.

There is nothing more dangerous than this licentious and deluding art, which changeth the meaning of words, as alchymy doth, or would do, the substance of metals, maketh of anything what it listeth, and bringeth, in the end, all truth to nothing. Hooker.

O he sits high in all the people’s hearts;

And that which would appear offence in us,

His countenance, like richest alchymy,

Will change to virtue, and to worthiness. Shakesp. J. Caesar.

Princes do but play us; compared to this,

All honours mimick, all wealth alchymy. Donne.

from johnson 1755 2
From Johnson 1755 (2)


2. A kind of mixed metal used for spoons, and kitchen utensils.

The golden colour may be some mixture of orpiment, such as they use to brass in the yellow alchymy.


White alchymy is made of pan-brass one pound, and arsenicum three ounces; or alchymy is made of copper and auripigmentum. Bacon’s Physical Remains

They bid cry,

With trumpets regal found, the great result:

Tow’rds the four winds, four speedy cherubim

Put to their mouth the sounding alchymy,

By herald’s voice explained. Milton’s Paradise Lost, book 2

from johnson 1755 3
From Johnson 1755 (3)


An Arabick term used by chymists for a high rectified dephlegmated spirit of wine, or for anything reduced into an impalpable powder. Quincy.

If the same salt shall be reduced into alcohol, as the chymists speak, or an impalpable powder, the particles and intercepted spaces will be extremely lessened. Boyle.

Sal volatile oleosum will coagulate the serum on account of the alcahol, or rectified spirit, which it contains. Arbuthnot.

from johnson 1755 4
From Johnson 1755 (4)


To clear from phlegm, or aqueous insipid matter.

PHLEGM, … 2. water.

A linen cloth, dipped in common spirit of wine, is not burnt by the flame, because the phlegm of the liquor defends the cloth. Boyle.

[But Greek phlegma means ‘fire’! The meaning change (to ‘liquid secretion’, via ‘inflammation of the body’) took place in Late Latin]

aspects of johnson
Aspects of Johnson
  • Literary style of definition writing
  • Citations from literature, especially poets
  • Reliance on scientific and technical authority
  • Very full coverage of the vocabulary
  • Few concessions to make things easier for the reader
random house dictionary 1966
Random House Dictionary (1966)

alcohol…1. … a colorless, limpid, volatile, flammable, water-miscible liquid, C2H5OH, having an etherlike odor and pungent, burning taste, the intoxicating principle of fermented liquors, produced by yeast fermentation of certain carbohydrates, as grains, molasses, starch, or sugar, or obtained synthetically by hydration of ethylene or as a by-product of certain syntheses: used chiefly as a solvent in the extraction of specific substances, in beverages, medicines, organic synthesis, lotions, tonics, colognes, rubbing compounds, as an automobile radiator antifreeze, and as a rocket fuel. 2. whiskey, gin, vodka, or any other intoxicating liquor containing this liquid. 3.Chem. Any of a class of compounds …having the general formula ROH, where R represents an alkyl group and –OH a hydroxyl group…

new oxford dictionary of english 1998
New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)

alcohol… a colourless volatile flammable liquid which is the intoxicating constituent of wine, beer, spirits, and other drinks, and is also used as an industrial solvent and as fuel.

  • Alternative names: ethanol, ethyl alcohol; formula: C2H5OH.
  • drink containing this: he has not taken alcohol in 25 years.
  • Chemistry. any organic compound whose molecule contains one or more hydroxyl groups attached to a carbon atom.
oxford advanced learner s dictionary 6 th edition 2000
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 6th edition (2000)

alcohol noun [U] 1 drinks such as beer, wine, etc., that can make people drunk: He never drinks alcohol. alcohol abuse2 the colourless liquid that is found in drinks such as beer, wine, etc., and is used in medicines, cleaning products, etc.: Wine usually contains about 10% alcohol.  levels of alcohol in the blood  He pleaded guilty to driving with excess alcohol.  Low-alcohol beer  Choose an alcohol-free skin toner if you have dry skin.

cobuild 1987
Cobuild (1987)


  • Drinks that can make people drunk, such as beer, wine, and whisky, can be referred to as alcohol. Do either of you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol? … No alcohol is allowed on the premises.
  • Alcohol is a colourless liquid that is found in drinks such as beer, wine, and whisky. It is also used in products such as perfumes and cleaning fluids. …low-alcohol beer … Products for dry skin have little or no alcohol.
from a wasps word sketch http wasps itri brighton ac uk
from a Wasps word sketch(http//:wasps.itri.brighton.ac.uk)

alcohol (as modifier)BNC freq. MI score

  • alcohol consumption 131 34.0
  • alcohol abuse 114 31.3
  • alcohol intake 53 18.2
  • alcohol misuse 23 17.7
  • alcohol content 35 15.3
  • alcohol problem 38 11.3
  • alcohol dependency 5 10.1
  • alcohol dependence 7 9.2
random house dictionary 196625
Random House Dictionary (1966)

alchemy … 1.a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life. 2. any magical powder or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.

new oxford dictionary of english 199826
New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)

alchemy … the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter. It was concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.

  • figurativeA process by which paradoxical results are achieved or incompatible elements combined with no obvious rational explanation: his conducting managed by some alchemy to give a sense of fire and ice.
oxford advanced learner s dictionary 6th edition 2000
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 6th edition (2000)

alchemynoun [U]

1 a form of chemistry studied in the Middle Ages which involved trying to discover how to change ordinary metals into gold. 2(literary) a mysterious power or magic that can change things.

cobuild 198728
Cobuild (1987)


  • Alchemy was a form of chemistry studied in the Middle Ages, which was concerned with trying to discover ways to change ordinary metals into gold.
  • Alchemy is the power to change or create things in a way which seems mysterious and magical.[LITERARY] Let us imagine that by some political alchemy it had been possible to make all men equal.
some issues in definition writing
Some issues in definition writing
  • A verbless phrase or a full sentence (as in Cobuild)?
  • Defining the ‘essence’ of something, or characterizing what it typically is.
  • How much technical detail to put in, and how to present it?
  • The role of examples.
  • How to express changing beliefs, scepticism (e.g. about alchemy).
  • How to relate figurative extensions to the ‘literal’ meaning (e.g. alchemy = a former science, but also apparent magic; alcohol = strong drink as well as a chemical)
deciding what is a sense
Deciding what is a sense

complain v.i.1. express dissatisfaction or annoyance about a state of affairs or an event. 2. (complain of) state that one is suffering from (a pain): he began to complain of headaches.

  • This could be: “express dissatisfaction about a state of affairs or a pain that one is suffering from” BUT:

complaintn.1. A statement that a situation is unsatis-factory or unacceptable. 2. An illness or medical condition: a skin complaint.

  • Words and senses interact with one another. Dictionaries have their own kind of textual discourse structure. They are not just lists.
selecting entries
Selecting entries
  • ‘All’ the words of a language?
    • The dictionary as as inventory of the language
    • But the inventory of a living language has no fixed size: neologisms, slang, foreign borrowings, technical jargon, etc., etc.
  • Should a dictionary include names?
    • The dictionary as a cultural index
    • are “English” and “England” words or names?
    • What about “Christ”? (problematic if only entered as an oath. It is an oath, but it is also a proper name.)
how much grammatical information should a dictionary include
How much grammatical information should a dictionary include?
  • Danger: the (English) public are resistant to grammar.
  • But grammatical differences must be stated to distinguish one sense from another.
  • NODE uses [with obj.], [no obj.], [with adverbial], with obj. and adverbial], etc. (It dares not go much farther!)
  • NODE uses various other devices, including highlighting common phraseology in examples.
  • NODE makes no explicit mention of count nouns except where contrasted with mass nouns.
boxed features
Boxed features

Page design: breaking the monotony of the page.

Boxed features – for usage notes, historical asides, and other subsidiary information. Example:

  • USAGEThe core meaning of refute is ‘prove (a statement or theory) to be wrong’, as in attempts to refute Einstein’s theory. In the second half of the 20th century, a more general sense developed, meaning simply ‘deny’, as in I absolutely refute the charges made against me. Trad-itionalists object to the second use on the grounds that it is an unacceptable degradation of the language, but it is now widely accepted in standard English.
arrangement of senses
Arrangement of senses
  • On historical principles? (oldest sense first)

camera1. a small room. 2. the treasury of the papal curia. 3. a device for taking photographs.

  • Or representing conventional contemporary usage?

camera1. a device for taking photographs. 2.in camera: in a small room (used of a judge hearing evidence in private).

what is the function of etymologies
What is the function of etymologies?
  • To record the morphological and phonological development of words, from ancient languages (French, Latin, Greek, Old Norse, *Germanic, *IndoEuropean, etc.), up to their first occurrence in English?
  • Or to tell the story of the word’s history? EG

Camera … [from Latin camera‘small room’. The modern sense developed in the 19th century via the 18th century term camera obscura, denoting a darkened upper room with a (rotating) angled mirror at the apex of the roof, which projected an image of the surrounding landscape onto a flat surface in the room]

  • Or both?
word histories explaining semantic development too
Word histories: explaining semantic development, too

madrigal – from Italian madrigale, medieval Latin carmen matricale ‘simple song’ (i.e. one without instrumental accompaniment), from Latin matricalis ‘maternal, simple, primitive’, from matrix ‘womb’.

magazine – via Italian from Arabic makzin ‘storehouse’ (for armaments and goods, hence, figuratively, for facts): the same word as French magasin ‘shop, department store’.

size – from assizes ‘sitting of a law court’. A ‘size loaf’ was a loaf of a dimension determined by a law court.

  • The purpose(s) of monolingual dictionaries:
    • To answer all of everbody’s questions about words, without knowing in advance what the questions are going to be.
    • The lexicographer must consider the needs, expectations, and limitations of the dictionary user.
  • Coverage (in addition to core vocabulary)
    • slang and neologisms (journalists love them!)
    • technical vocabulary for a technological world
    • names of famous people and places
  • A dictionary entry can tell a story.
  • Many dictionaries also give guidance on usage.