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the applied study of the meaning, evolution, and function of the vocabulary units of a language for the purpose of compilation in book form—in short, the process of dictionary making. Early lexicography, practiced from the 7th cent. B.C. in Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, was reserved for abstruse words of specific disciplines. General lexicography originated in the 16th cent., and aspects of the modern dictionarydictionary,
published list, in alphabetical order, of the words of a language. In monolingual dictionaries the words are explained and defined in the same language; in bilingual dictionaries they are translated into another language.
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, such as etymology, developed during the 17th and 18th cent.



the division of linguistics dealing with the theory and practice of compiling dictionaries.

Three similar periods can be distinguished in the development of the forms of practical lexicography. The first was the predictionary period. The explanation of obscure words was the primary function of glosses (in Sumer, 25th century B.C.; in China, 20th century B.C.; in Western Europe, eighth century A.D.; and in Russia, 13th century), glossaries (collections of glosses for individual works or authors, for example, to the Vedas, first millennium B.C., and to Homer, from the fifth century B.C.), and vocabularies (collections of words for educational and other purposes, for example, the trilingual Sumerian-Akkadian-Hittite tablets, 14th to 13th centuries B.C.; lists of words in thematic groups in Egypt, 1750 B.C.).

The second period was the early dictionary period. The primary function was to study a literary language, different for many peoples from conversational speech—for example, the unilingual lexicons of Sanskrit, sixth to eighth centuries, and Ancient Greek, tenth century; later, “passive” translation dictionaries were compiled, in which the vocabulary of a foreign language was explained using words from the national language (Arabic-Persian, 11th century; Latin-English, 15th century; Church Slavonic-Russian, 16th century); then “active” translation dictionaries came into being, in which the national language was the original one (French-Latin and English-Latin, 16th century; Russian-Latin-Greek, 18th century), as did bilingual dictionaries of living languages. The first explanatory dictionaries were compiled in countries with hieroglyphic writing (China, third century B.C.; Japan, eighth century).

The third period covers developed lexicography, which is linked with the development of national literary languages. The primary function was to describe and normalize the vocabulary of a language and to raise the level of linguistic culture of society. This period includes explanatory dictionaries, many compiled by state academic and philological societies (the Italian Accadèmia della Crusca dictionary, 1612; the Russian Academy dictionary, 1789–94), and synonymic, phraseological, dialectal, terminological, orthographic, and grammatic dictionaries. The philosophical concepts of the era influenced the development of lexicography; for example, the academic dictionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries were drawn up under the influence of Bacon’s and Descartes’s philosophy of science, whereas Littrè’s dictionary of the French language (1863–72) and other 19th-century dictionaries were influenced by positivism. The evolutionist theories of the 19th century strengthened the historical aspect in explanatory dictionaries.

A fourth function of lexicography was established in the 18th and 19th centuries and has developed in the 20th century—to collect and process data for linguistic research in lexicology, word formation, stylistics, and the history of language (etymological and historical dictionaries and frequency vocabularies; dictionaries arranged in reverse order and dictionaries of cognate languages and of the language of a writer, etc.). Since 1950 contemporary lexicography has taken on some characteristics of an industry (establishment of lexicographical centers and institutes and mechanization of work).

Theoretical lexicography developed in the second third of the 20th century; the Soviet scholar L. V. Shcherba worked out the first scientific typology of dictionaries in 1940. It has developed further in the works of many Soviet and foreign linguists (in Czechoslovakia, France, and the USA, for example). Typical of contemporary lexicography are (1) the conception of vocabulary as a system, an attempt to reflect the lexical-semantic structure of language as a whole and the semantic structure of the individual word (isolating the meanings of words according to their links with other words in the text and within semantic fields) in the structure of the dictionary; (2) a dialectical view of the meaning of a word, an accounting of the mobile nature of the link between the signifier and signified in a verbal symbol (an attempt to record the nuances and transitions in the meanings of words, their uses in speech, and the various intermediate phenomena); and (3) an acknowledgment of the close bond between vocabulary and grammar and the other aspects of language.

Lexicography is linked with all the divisions of linguistics and especially with lexicology, many issues of which are specifically interpreted in lexicography. Contemporary lexicography emphasizes the important social function of dictionaries, which set forth the totality of knowledge of a society in a given era. Lexicography works out the typology of dictionaries. In this way dictionaries are classified as, for example, unilingual (such as explanatory dictionaries), bilingual (translation dictionaries), instructional (dictionaries for studying languages), and scientific and technical (terminological dictionaries).


Shcherba, L. V. “Opyt obshchei teorii leksikografii.” Izv. AN SSSR, OLIa, 1940, no. 3.
Leksikograficheskii sbornik, vols. 1–6. Moscow, 1957–63.
Kovtun, L. S. Russkaia leksikografiia epokhi srednevekov’ia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.
Casares, Julio. Vvedenie v sovremennuiu leksikografiiu. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from Spanish.)
Problems in Lexicography, 2nd ed. Edited by F. W. Householder and Sol Saporta. The Hague, 1967.
Dubois, J., and C. Dubois. Introduction à la lexicographie: Le dictionnaire. Paris, 1971.
Rey-Debove, J. Etude linguistique et sémiotique des dictionnaires français contemporains. The Hague-Paris, 1971.
Zgusta, L. Manual of Lexicography The Hague, 1971.



Johnson, Samuel
(1709–1784) literary scholar, creator of first comprehensive lexicographical work of English. [Br. Hist.: EB, V: 591]
Murray, James
(1837–1915) renowned editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. [Br. Hist.: Caught in the Web of Words]
Oxford English Dictionary
(OED) great multi-volume historical dictionary of English. [Br. Hist.: Caught in the Web of Words]
Webster, Noah
(1758–1843) philologist and compiler of popular comprehensive American dictionary. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 902]
now used generically, synonymous in U.S. with authoritativeness in a dictionary. [Am. Cult.: Misc.]