How to Find What You Are Looking For In The Century Dictionary

Questions to Ask Yourself When Using The Century Dictionary Online

  1. Are you looking for lexical or encyclopedic information?
  2. Are you looking in the supplementary volumes as well as the first editions?
  3. What can I find here and what can I not find here?

Are you looking for lexical or encyclopedic information?

Dictionaries often include both lexical and encyclopedic material, but they differ in the way such information is treated. It is useful, before beginning to search in a dictionary, to determine what sort of information you are trying to find.

Lexical material may be defined as information about words, including spelling forms, pronunciation, etymologies or word origins, sense definitions, synonym explanations, descriptive or linguistic notes, and illustrative quotations or examples of use. Lexical material generally excludes proper names (except in forms where such names have come to be used as independent words - e.g., Jeffersonian or Darwinism), biographical data, descriptions of historical events, geographical or political entities, and works of art or literature. Thus, the words Washingtonia and Washingtonian will usually be treated as dictionary entries but not the name Washington itself.

Encyclopedic material may often include information about pronunciation or even etymology, but its main emphasis is typically extra-linguistic. An encyclopedia will usually have an article about Darwin, the man, or even about his individual works. An encyclopedia will include articles about historical events, place-names, political or cultural institutions, geographical entities, nationalities or tribes, myths, etc., none of which could properly be considered in purely linguistic terms.

Some dictionaries, like those in the Merriam-Webster series, include both lexical and encyclopedic information in the same alphabetical range. Others, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, exclude encyclopedic information altogether, except where it is necessary as part of an etymology or a note. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia includes both types of information, but keeps them separate. The dictionary proper limits itself, like the Oxford English Dictionary, to lexical information. Encyclopedic materials, of the kinds enumerated above, are treated in the volumes of the cyclopedia. Thus, if you want to find information about the Native American tribe known as the Apaches, you will be disappointed looking in the dictionary volumes, where you will find only Apache-plume and Apache blue-grass defined. The cyclopedia, however, has a sizeable descriptive article about the tribe itself, including pronunciation and etymological information. If you look up Actæon (search it as "actaeon" in spite of the ae ligature) in the dictionary, you will find some information about the mythological hunter in the etymology. You will also discover that its lexical interest is as the common name of two kinds of mollusks. If you look in the cyclopedia, however, you will find an article devoted to the Actæon of mythological fame.

Are you looking in the supplementary volumes as well as the first editions?

One often hears it quipped that dictionaries and encyclopedias are already obsolete the moment they go to press. Languages, like events, are constantly changing, and all reference works must set limits and have a cut-off point if they are ever to be published. This is especially true of large-scale dictionaries, which cannot undergo complete, integrated revisions on a short-term schedule. Dictionary editors are well aware of this short-coming, and often begin working on supplements before a main edition actually appears. The Oxford English Dictionary editors, for instance, were already at work on the one volume 1933 supplement when the main dictionary was published in 1928. It was followed by four more supplementary volumes before the integrated 2nd edition came out in 1989, by which time new "Additions" volumes were already in preparation. Merriam-Webster typically included supplementary entries in its interim printings of the major editions, either as "footers" running along the bottoms of the pages or in supplementary sections or volumes.

The Century Dictionary Online comprises four complete alphabetical ranges: the first edition dictionary in volumes I to VIII, the first edition cyclopedia in volumes IX and X, the dictionary supplement in volumes XI and most of XII, and the cyclopedia supplement at the end of volume XII. The world atlas appears after the first edition cyclopedia at the end of volume X.

When looking something up in any dictionary or encyclopedia that includes supplementary material, it is important to check all the available alphabetical ranges. This is why the "Find Entry" function of The Century Dictionary Online presents pages from both the first edition and the dictionary supplement by default and optionally allows all four ranges to be searched at once. The supplements typically include new words or senses that came to light and were drafted after the first edition was complete, but may also include extensions of earlier entries (e.g., the entry for malaria) based on newly discovered information, the addition of death dates in biographical entries, etc. Though last published in 1914, the Century Dictionary Supplement was remarkably up to date for its time and included many terms that were not drafted for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement until the 1970's. Words of more recent origin, of course, cannot be found, but a great many terms in fields such as telephony, aeronautics, and the automotive industry that were very productive in the period between the first edition and the supplement can be found defined according to the usual, high standards of The Century Dictionary in the later volumes.

What can I find here and what can I not find here?

The Century Dictionary defines more words and senses than most other English dictionaries, and more than any other dictionary freely available online, but there are a number of limitations that you should bear in mind.

It does not include words that originated later than the early Twentieth Century. Just what these words are is not as obvious as it might seem at first. A number of seemingly very modern scientific terms, for instance, are actually extensions of recognizable, older senses that are covered in The Century Dictionary. On the other hand, a word like hacek, that one might think goes back at least as far as the Grimms, is actually a recent linguistic term originating in the 1950's and thus much too late for inclusion here. Some areas, of course, are obvious: The Century Dictionary does not include terms from the post World War I political movements, such as Fascism, Bolshevism, Nazism, etc. It does not include terms specific to technologies, such as television, that were invented in the 1920's or later. It does not include slang terms that originated later than the early Twentieth Century. It does not include biographies of people who were not already well known by the early Twentieth Century, nor does it have death dates for those who died after the last publication. The maps in the world atlas reflect the pre World War era. If what you are trying to find belongs in one of these categories, you need to look in some other source.

It does include very full, rich coverage of the core vocabulary of English, that is, all the common and uncommon words, current and obsolete, of the language in general. It includes relatively advanced coverage of many technical fields, such as telephony, with origins at least in the Nineteenth Century. It includes remarkably detailed coverage of the biological and other sciences that were already "mature" at the time of publication, as well as such specialized fields as agriculture, architecture, clothing, armory, and the building trades. It includes richly detailed coverage of nautical, philosophical, theological, legal, literary, and linguistic terms. It includes deep and serious coverage of terms of American origin. It includes excellent American pronunciations of words throughout the vocabulary using a clear and consistent form of phonetical representation. It includes a rich set of biographical and other encyclopedic material on all periods from ancient times to the early Twentieth Century. Its excellent coverage of the classical, medieval, and renaissance periods is noteworthy, but its "weightedness" in the then recent Nineteenth Century makes it an especially useful resource for scholars of that period.

To give you a better idea of how special The Century Dictionary is and how it compares with other popular dictionaries, see our Comparison of Unabridged Dictionaries.


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