Dictionaries are treasure houses of knowledge. They come in many sizes, large and small. You can put a small one into your bag or your pocket. The largest English dictionary is Oxford English Dictionary. It has 20 huge volumes. It provides so much detail that, for example, the entries for the word up have the equivalent of over 50 A4 pages of information.
However, you don't really need such a large and detailed dictionary. You can use a small one or, better still, one that gives word histories as well as meanings and pronunciations.
You can also use a dictionary on your computer. A very good one is called called WordWeb. You can download a copy of the basic version free of charge, if you wish. (It does not have word histories, though.)
Most of the examples here are based on Australian dictionaries. They might look different from entries in the dictionary you use. However, they should still help you to understand the different ways words are shown in your dictionary, even if you do not live in Australia.
We will have a look at the word fidget. This is the sort of entry you will find in a simple dictionary.
It shows you how to pronounce the word, in a very easy way: say fij-it.
The word is split into two parts. The first part is in bold type. That means that the emphasis, when you say the word, is on the first part. Both parts include the letter i. In this example, both of them are pronounced to rhyme with the letter i in words like sit and link.
The entry then lets you know that this word is a verb. There is an example of the way it can be used.
The same word can also be used as a noun. This is shown as part of the Word Family. Finally, there is an adjective which is formed from fidget, by adding the letter y.
In case you are not sure about them, here is a list of what we call the parts of speech. You must know what they are if you are going to use your dictionary properly. And, obviously, you must know when and how to use them in your writing if it is to be clear for your readers.
PART OF SPEECH
WHAT IT IS
HOW IT IS USED
A word which helps to describe a noun.
The adjectives are underlined:
A black dog followed us down the long road.
A word which helps to describe a verb.
The adverbs are underlined:
We ran quickly when we heard the dog barking furiously.
A word which joins phrases
Examples: and, but, if, or, as. Words like either and neither are also used as conjunctions
A ‘naming word’.
Concrete nouns refer to people, places and tangible objects.
Proper nouns are names with capital initials.
Abstract nouns are used for qualities or states.
A word which denotes place or position.
Examples: at, behind, like, off, on.
Check your grammar book or style manual for a more detailed explanation
An action word or ‘doing word’.
Examples: have, had, has, sing, talk, write. Some words can be used as nouns as well as verbs, e.g., drink, fight, shout.
If you look at several dictionaries, you will find that all the definitions of the word are similar.
The pronunciation guides are different. Let's look at another entry based on a different dictionary.
The first part of the word is underlined. This shows you that when you say it, the stress is on the first part.
Weird looking letters are used to show you how to say the word. The letter i looks different and the letter e is upside down! They are from something called the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is also known as the IPA.
The IPA was created by scholars to show how consonants and vowels are pronounced. If you have a dictionary which uses it in the "say..." part, you will find a complete list of all the letters in the IPA somewhere near the front of the book. It is very important that you find it, remember where it is, and use it. Do not be scared of it!
There's something very interesting about the upside down e in the above example. It is giving a different pronunciation of the word from the pronunciation in the first example. It tells you that the first letter i is pronounced like the letter i in sit and link. However, it tells you that the letter e is not pronounced the same way.
Sorry, it gets a bit confusing! The same word can be pronounced in different ways. If you have two dictionaries which give different pronunciations, you need to find out how that word is usually pronounced in the place where you live.
The upside down letter e is called a schwa. It is used to show a vowel which is unstressed, not clearly pronounced like any of the vowels a, e, i. o, u. Other examples of this are in words like information, butter and America. In most places, the ion in information, the er in butter, and the second a in America are said like neutral vowels. They are "blurred over" or pronounced lazily. There are always exceptions, of course. For instance, in the beautiful way people speak in places like Jamaica, you'll hear the last three letters of information fully and clearly pronounced.
The next example has a yet another way of showing how the word is pronounced.
The pronunciation guide starts and ends with a stroke /. Two other IPA letters are used. Different dictionaries use the IPA in different ways. It is important that you get to know how your dictionary uses it.
It is always interesting to find out where a word came from. Its history is called its etymology. You need a larger dictionary if you want to find this information. There is a simple example.
C17 means 17th century. That means the 1600s.
fidge is an earlier spelling of the word.
Scholars are not sure where the word came from. It might have come from Old Norse.
Old Norse was the language spoken by the Vikings. The nearest modern language to it is Icelandic.
Here are three more examples of word history. This time, the words came into English after many hundreds, even thousands, of years in other languages.
You can see how English is related to Old High German, which was the language of Germany before about 1200. Modern German words for fear, fire and five are Furcht. Feuer and funf.
Old Norse was the language of the Vikings from about 700 to the mid-1300s. The nearest modern language to it is spoken in Iceland.
Latin is, as you know, the language of ancient Rome just as Greek was spoken in what we now call Greece. But what is Sanskrit?
Sanskrit is a very ancient Indian language. It is the source of many modern Indian languages. It is also related to Latin and to a whole group of European languages including English.
You'll see that some of our words which begin with the letter f came from old words beginning with the letter p. This sort of change happens over centuries of use.
You can find a lot more about the history of the English language on my other website. The Brain Rummager Too, here: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~umbidas/open.htm
But, before you leave this page...
Have you solved the mystery of this weird looking word?
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Acknowledgement of sources:
Dictionaries used for the basis of the above examples:
Heinemann Australian Dictionary
The Macquarie Junior Dictionary
The Macquarie Dictionary
Collins English Dictionary
Collins Cobuild Essential English Dictionary
Remember, your dictionary might show explanations, pronunciation and word history in a different way.