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Reference Sources: Dictionaries

A guide on the types of reference sources



Dictionaries provide information about words.                                                         

  • General Dictionaries are the most familiar to us. You may even own one. This group includes Webster's International Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. These sources generally provide definitions, pronunciations, syllabication, and usage.
  • Historical dictionaries provide the history of a word from its introduction into the language to the present. The F-Word  is an excellent example of this type of dictionary.
  • Etymological dictionaries are dictionaries which emphasize the analysis of components of words and their cognates in other languages. These dictionaries emphasize the linguistic and grammatical history of the word usage. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology is an example of an etymological dictionary.
  • Period or scholarly specialized dictionaries focus on a particular place or time period. For example, try the Dictionary of Alaskan English if you would like to know when the word "cheechako" was first used.   
  • Foreign language dictionaries are specialized dictionaries used to translate words or phrases from one language to another.
  • Subject dictionaries focus on word definitions in a subject area, such as finance, law, botany, electronics, physics, etc.
  • Other dictionaries include dictionaries of slang, abbreviations, synonyms, antonyms, abbreviations, acronyms, reversals, rhyming, idioms, phrases, and guides to correct usage. Dictionary of Acronyms and Abbreviations, The Macmillan Dictionary of Historical Slang, Strunk's Elements of Style         

Dictionaries, like other reference sources, may belong to more than one category. For example, an English-Russian engineering dictionary is both a foreign language and a subject dictionary.

Dictionaries may be abridged or unabridged. Abridged dictionaries are smaller and contained the most commonly used words. Unabridged dictionaries try to include all words in current usage. Like other reference sources, dictionaries may become outdated as language evolves. Care should be taken to carefully identify the publication date and focus of the dictionary selected. General dictionaries begin with LC call numbers starting with AG. Specialized dictionaries will have subject specific call numbers.



Adapted with permission from: "Reference Services and Sources" Elmer E. Rasmuson Library