General Language Dictionaries

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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.


A dictionary’s primary function is to define the meaning of words. Dictionaries also provide the pronunciation and syllabification and sometimes the etymology, or origin, of words. Additionally, they define major place names; major personal names from history, mythology, and the Bible; foreign terms; phrases; synonyms and antonyms; abbreviations; and general slang terms. Most dictionaries are illustrated, and some are almost encyclopedic in nature.

As language evolves, the meanings of words change. An important function of the dictionary is to show that evolution. Some dictionaries help the reader with grammar and word definition by using a defined word in a sentence. Other types of dictionaries are specialized and refer to one specific topic. The average library has many different kinds of dictionaries. While a good general language dictionary will usually fit the needs of genealogists, there are occasions when a specialized dictionary is needed.

There are two types of general language dictionaries. One type, the unabridged dictionary, generally contains more than 250,000 entries. The second type is smaller, with from 130,000 to 180,000 entries; these include college and desk dictionaries.

The standard unabridged dictionary found in most libraries is http://www.amazon.com/Third-International-Dictionary-English-Language/dp/0877792011/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1287089697&sr=1-1 [Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language]. It is common to find both the second and third editions in a library because the two differ so radically. The second edition contains 600,000 entries, while some 250,000 obsolete words were omitted from the third edition and 100,000 new words added for a total of 450,000 entries.

The second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language is often kept by libraries for historical purposes. It contains a reference history of the world, which served, in its time, as a basic handbook on world history; a pronouncing gazetteer; and a biographical dictionary, all of which were omitted from the third edition. The second edition is also useful because older, archaic words of the kind often found in wills and deeds are defined and used in sentences.

Additionally, unfamiliar and outmoded occupational terms can be found in unabridged dictionaries. Webster’s second edition indicates that a domer is "one who attaches domes to gloves." A dome is defined as a "clip fastener, as for gloves” (Webster’s 1957, 768).

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged was considered unconventional and controversial when it first appeared in 1961. It presented the language as currently used and therefore included many words regarded as colloquial or slang and thus incorrect. This edition contains 100,000 quotes taken from contemporary sources, while the 1934 edition contains classical and standard quotations. Both the second and third editions are useful dictionaries and are found in large public, university, and college libraries.

Using the example of the word domer, one will find in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary the following definition: "an operator or a machine that shapes box tops" (1986, 671). The older definition of the word has been dropped and a more modern definition substituted.

Additional examples of unabridged dictionaries are Funk and Wagnall’s New International Dictionary of the English Language and Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Both are considered standard and reliable reference sources.

Desk Dictionaries

There are many good desk dictionaries; every researcher probably has his or her own favorite. The following dictionaries are authoritative, give clear and concise definitions, and offer etymologies.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. contains approximately 200,000 entries and is larger than the usual desk dictionary. Created by the publishers of American Heritage magazine, it is attractive and well illustrated.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is based on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. It emphasizes standard language and contains very few slang or colloquial terms. In publication since 1893, this dictionary is frequently reprinted. Word etymologies are explicit and definitions appear in chronological order, with the most modern meaning given last. Appendixes offer biographical and geographical names, signs and symbols, and a style handbook.

Foreign Language Dictionaries

Genealogists often come across documents written in languages foreign to them; this is especially true for Americans of German descent. Researchers can read German documents by using Ernest Thode’s excellent German-English Genealogical Dictionary. Thode’s book is the first genealogical dictionary devoted entirely to German words and their definitions. German words defined in this dictionary are from many German genealogical sources, including church records, civil registration records, and family correspondence. The words listed are not generally found in language dictionaries. This dictionary is well presented and easy to use; word definitions are short and there are no etymologies or pronunciation guides. The German alphabet with script variations is included to help the reader.

Thode suggests that genealogists using his dictionary should also consult a German-English dictionary and suggests New Cassell’s German-English, English-German Dictionary (New York: Macmillan, 1978) or Langenscheidt’s New College German Dictionary (Berlin: Langenscheidt, 1988). Each dictionary is divided into two parts: one German to English and the other English to German.

Central European Genealogical Terminology, by Jared Suess, includes definitions of Latin, French, Hungarian, and Italian words as well as German terms.


Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records


Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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Appendix

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