The Past and Future of the Dictionary


Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1775, was the first comprehensive dictionary in English. Before this time, dictionaries were often glossaries of difficult words, neglecting more basic terms. However Johnson’s dictionary aimed to cover general vocabulary and everyday usage, not just the “hard” words. The Century Dictionary, published between 1889 and 1891, grew from this tradition. Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as “in its time…one of the finest general-purpose dictionaries in the United States.” Few people beyond the walls of Dictionary.com’s offices know that The Century Dictionary eventually grew into The Random House Dictionary, which powers much of Dictionary.com today.

Of course print dictionaries are very different beasts than online dictionaries. One of the redeeming features of print dictionaries is word discovery. As you find the word you intended to look up, you organically skim many other words and definitions. At Dictionary.com, we strive to bring you that joy of serendipity in numerous ways. We carefully curate lexical gems that you might not otherwise come across for our Word of the Day. We also feature a nearby-words column in our word entry pages to aid your word perusal, which never involves the risk of paper cuts. (Our iPad app also offers a browseable alphabetical landscape view.)

Historically, print dictionaries have struggled with lack of space, but that’s not an issue with an online dictionary. Having essentially limitless room allows us to give improved pronunciations (we offer two written pronunciations in addition to the audio pronunciation, also sorely lacking from a print source). Additionally we supply other supplemental content such as usage notes, synonym studies, confusable notes, spelling suggestions, example sentences, and word stories, all to help you find what you need.

To bring the venerable tradition of dictionaries into the age of intelligent algorithms and computational linguistics, at Dictionary.com we continue to innovate how words are discovered and what word learning can mean. The redesign of Thesaurus.com and the iOS app Thesaurus Rex revolutionized the search for synonyms. Synonyms are no longer just an alphabetical list, but ranked by relevance and you can filter the results by complexity and length. We also feature blog posts, slideshows, and a robust social-media presence to keep you up-to-date with trends in the language world, and to uncover fun facts about English.

Whether you’re finding the definition of a term you read in the news, confirming the spelling of a word, trying to solve a puzzle, studying for spelling bee or test, using our Thesaurus to find the perfect word to use on your résumé, or learning more about language from our blog or slideshows, Dictionary.com is the essential reference for you.


  1. Maria -  August 30, 2015 - 10:29 pm

    I don’t care what anyone says or how anyone feels! There will never be a single way whatsoever on HOW TO REPLACE, especially VISUALLY the actual AMOUNT of content together with backgrounds, as well as ‘enunciated’ PRO-nunciations to every last one of our millions upon millions of our English Language words! And that’s all, folks!

  2. Idioms -  February 10, 2014 - 2:31 am

    The history of dictionary is definitely bright, but keep it updated according to time. that all think.

  3. NGHIA -  January 25, 2014 - 7:53 am

    I havn’t ever tryed to look up a word that didn’t have an entry, and It’s easier than a computer.

  4. animalover -  October 24, 2013 - 1:40 pm

    :D :D :D :D : D: D: D: D:D

  5. animalover -  October 24, 2013 - 1:38 pm

    lizbeth u r right :D i thought i was the only one

  6. TD -  October 22, 2013 - 10:19 pm

    Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was not published in 1775. It was 1755.

  7. Thomas -  October 21, 2013 - 9:26 am

    In my elementary and high school years, I had to use the old papaer dictionaries. They were terribly clumsy and inconvenient for an ESL student.
    Thanks to dictionary.com I discovered the joy of learning and reading English in my university years!

    This online dictionary is far superior to the old traditional dictionaries.
    Dictionary.com “Your” the best!

  8. Patricia95 -  October 21, 2013 - 9:24 am

    hi:)I think that nothing can replace paper-language dictionaries

  9. David -  October 20, 2013 - 2:09 pm

    I have this dictionary that is so outdated.
    Its like not is “ain’t”.

  10. Adam Kielich -  October 20, 2013 - 1:16 pm

    What about Samuel Jackson’s dictionary?

  11. Mmphs Trc -  October 20, 2013 - 11:00 am

    lexicon woman, Ahmed is right to use “large” in the sentence: “It goes without saying that Samuel Johnson will figure large here.”

  12. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  October 20, 2013 - 6:48 am

    I’m thinking of compiling a “gaming dictionary” of terms gamers use. For example, an entry might look something like this:

    spawn [spaun] v. (spawned, spawning)
    to appear, especially for the first time; to cause (something) to appear
    n. what you use to spawn things (rare) Note: this is not called a “spawner.”
    respawn, despawn, spawn point

    etc., etc. Does anyone know if such a gaming dictionary exists on the Web?

  13. Thomas Chacko -  October 20, 2013 - 2:29 am

    As high school student, I kept an old ledger as a personal wordbook. entered every new word I came across, its dictionary definition, and at least one sentence of my own using that word. It was one of my pleasures to open my vocabulary ledger at random and go over the words in it. One of my regrets is that somewhere during my numerous education-related peregrinations, I lost it. Now docitionary.com helps me make up for its loss to a very great extent.

  14. Sam -  October 20, 2013 - 12:33 am

    Grammar Nazi are people bound by habit. An invaluable gift of Internet.
    An example as mentioned below

    “Es ist “für wen”, nicht “für wer””
    ~ Grammar Nazi on grammar

    “Das Komma geht schließende Anführungszeichen und einfache Anführungszeichen sollten anstelle von Anführungszeichen verwendet werden.”
    ~ Another Grammar Nazi on the above quote

  15. Deborah E. -  October 19, 2013 - 10:41 pm

    Wasn’t the Oxford English Dictionary the first complete dictionary, though it’s completion was not until the early 1900′s?

  16. Ray -  October 18, 2013 - 8:25 pm

    I cannot emphasize sufficiently the need for etymologies back to the Sumero-Egyptian language: a tonguage that despite the anathemas calling Sumerian, a language isolate, it’s a family split by internecine moronicity, imbecility, and plain idiocracy (alright, stick with idiocy)…

    Appending it to the Greco-Roman etymology might aid in learning to recognize the larger history of man–a topic that’ll explode, last year:

    Last year, this year, next year–it’s all the same once it’s recognized;

    Not to ‘spam’ anything, but, no matter how slowly erudition will learn basic ‘reality’, the reality is now inescapably obviously, in the current imagery coming from planet Mars–Mankind has a history on Mars… And, that history is through, but also millions of years older than, the middle-east Re-Creation of man in the contemporary gods’ image….

    I’m only asking that the etymologies be expanded to include Sumero-Egyptian, so that your children may learn where you’re coming from…

    Like the Japanese wisdom that a man is a fool who never climbs Mt. Fuji, but the man who climbs Mt. Fuji twice is the bigger of two fools, pareidolia is as a two-edged sword swinging both, ways… Seeing, is seeing, and what you, believe, depends on your practice of Science.

  17. Archon -  October 18, 2013 - 7:38 pm

    Dictionary.Com: It’s “very different beasts FROM online dictionaries”

  18. Darrell -  October 18, 2013 - 6:40 am

    See why I need a dictionary.

  19. gogo -  October 17, 2013 - 6:14 am

    @Darrell: *its* small size!!! (line 8)
    tried (line 9)
    inconvenient (line 5)

  20. Balasubramanian.G -  October 16, 2013 - 5:21 pm

    A right insight into the evolution and purpose of dictionary. I appreciate the professionalism and dedication for language, in tune with the techniques (technology available).Online dictionary deserves the appreciation for ease of use; the comfort of OS and software are added advantage that helps browse a dictionary with utmost ease.
    Many thanks for your sustained efforts and innovative presentation.

  21. Boatwright -  October 16, 2013 - 3:52 pm

    Awesome! Thank you dictionary.com

  22. lexicon woman -  October 16, 2013 - 12:05 pm

    Ahmed, it’s “largely”

    Darrell, it’s “tried”

  23. Darrell -  October 16, 2013 - 6:36 am

    I have a small, tattered and torn, paperback, Random House Dictionary that I might have gotten thirty years ago on my desk at work. Dictionary size and weight has always been an overlooked, by laymen, factor. The larger, heavier, and more inclusive dictionary that people would think is superior is sometimes too incovenient to use minute by minute.

    The one I have on my desk is, I’m sure, small. On the back it boasts it has 70,000 words. I imagine that’s a fraction of the total number of English words in use today, but it’s still on my desk. Because of it’s small size it’s my tool of choice. I havn’t ever tryed to look up a word that didn’t have an entry, and It’s easier than a computer.

  24. Ahmed Seddik -  October 15, 2013 - 3:04 pm

    I am in the process of creating a Dictionary Museum where I plan to curate a multitude of your lexical gems. It goes without saying that Samuel Johnson will figure large here. Thank you Dictionary.com


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