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Defining the Role and the Intended Audience of the English Language Dictionaries

Language is the basic instrument for rendering and expressing human emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Therefore, the extent to which a person is linguistically educated defines his/her ability to operate specific vocabulary and grammar.

Therefore, considering language as the main object of knowledge has become the central point since many linguists attempt to describe language and define its role in social and mental life. The dictionaries emerged because of the in-depth research in order to design standardized patterns of using language.

In the course of studying language, dictionaries evolve into various types with regard to their functions, roles, and intended audience. They serve to define the meaning of words, explore their origins and etymology, and classify words according to their lexical meaning.

Defining Dictionary and Thesaurus

According to Crystal (1997), “a dictionary is a reference book that lists the words of one or more language, usually in alphabetical order” (p. 18). Hence, words are inherent elements of linguistic knowledge; they also create a part of mental grammar (Bopp 2011, p. 502). While communicating with foreigners, people often apply to the information they find in a dictionary.

However, mere knowledge of sounds combined into meaningful patterns is not enough to learn the language. In this respect, there is a variety of dictionaries providing learners with specific information on lexical, structural, and grammatical meanings of a word. Dictionaries can perform different functions depending on their goals.

A general, standard dictionary contains pronunciation, definition, variant spelling, functions, and exemplary usages (Bopp 2011, p. 502). Some dictionaries may involve entries with etymological history, origins, dates of use, and even illustration. There is also a discipline-focused dictionary whose primary function lies in presenting detailed definitions and examples (Bopp 2011, p. 502).

In most cases, such dictionaries omit such elements as pronunciation. Though the majority of dictionaries are organized in alphabetical order, there are visual dictionaries where the focus is made on matching terms with their objects. Such dictionaries are often classified by subject (Bopp 2011, p. 502). In the era of internet, electronic dictionaries have much greater benefits because they may contain hyperlinks on related definitions, as well as pictures and audience samples of pronunciation.

With the above-presented definitions in mind, dictionaries serve as a means of language standardization in society and, therefore, it can provide a historic and social context for studying and understanding a specific meaning of a word (Graddol 1994).

From various perspectives, dictionaries can perform several functions. First, it encodes the principles of languages, assigns specific functions and usage of languages, and points out specific errors for improving the language (Crystal 1997).

The meaning of the term thesaurus originates from the Greek language and means “a storehouse or treasury of knowledge” (1997, p. 39). Prasher (1997) focuses on the definition of a thesaurus as “a book of words or of information about a particular field or set of concepts, specifically a dictionary of synonyms” (p. 39).

As dictionary standardizes language, the function of a thesaurus normalizes the language vocabulary. With regard to the term definitions, there are three functions of thesaurus. The first one is confined to presenting a prescriptive indexing aid by normalizing language.

The second function relates to offering suggestions concerning additional clues and terms. In particular, such thesauruses create word groupings based on a common concept (Prasher, 1997, p. 41). Finally, the third function seeks to display co-occurrences and associations of words, terms, and documents to present an indexing aid.

Analysis of Dictionaries in Terms of Presenting Polysemy, Homonymy, and Related Meanings

Dictionaries often present words with similar or related meanings (Yule, p. 120). Such words are technically called polysemy, signs, words, or phrases with multiple meanings, but with similar pronunciation. In the most dictionaries, the list of multiple meaning of the word are presented as a singly entry.

Examples of polysemantic words refer to such words as face, man, foot, get, head, etc. One of the earliest dictionaries, A Dictionary of the English Language by Johnson distinguishes the word face divides analysis of its meaning into three single entries. The first one represents the meaning of word being a noun.

The rest two are defined as verbs in their different meanings. The verbal explanations of the word are similar in meanings, although they are represented in separated sections. Similar representations of the word meanings are provided in Webster’s dictionary, but with a much deeper comprehension of those words. While analyzing the presented explanations, it can be stated that separately represented entries can be regarded as homonymy whereas the lexical variations of the word integrated into one entry can be called polysemy.

There is a subtle difference between polysemy and homonymy. The latter is associated with a word that has similar spelling and pronunciation, but a different lexical meaning. For instance, bank as a financial institution and bank as an edge of land near the river. Unlike polysemy, which have related meanings, homonymy can relate to words that have completely different etymological history and their spelling and pronunciation accidentally coincide.

Homonyms are usually presented as two different entries in the dictionaries. However, the analysis of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language provides an alternative format for defining the word bank (Johnson et al. 1828). Specifically, the author makes a clear definition between the words in terms of their function as parts of speech.

In the dictionary, the homonymy Bank defined as a noun provides several lexical meanings: “the earth arising on each side of a water; any heap piled up; a bend of rowers; a place where money is laid up; the company of persons concerned in managing bank” (Johnson et al. 1828, p. 57). The dictionary separates the word bank defined as a verb which means “to inclose with banks; to lay up money a bank” (Johnson et al. 1828, p. 57).

Similar structure is presented in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (Webster and Walker 1830). The difference lies in the presence of enumeration and much larger number of the words definitions. For instance, the homonymy bank provides seven definitions instead of five, as it is represented in the dictionary by Johnson et al. (1828).

Specifically, it specifies the meaning of bank as “an elevation, or rising ground, in the sea called also flats, shoals, shelves,” (Webster, 1830, p. 70). The verb bank is also represented as single entries and interprets the same meaning as it is introduced in Johnson’s dictionary.

As per synonymic and antonymic representations, not all dictionaries offer information on this matter. This is of particular concern to standardized general dictionaries that are more concerned with representing various lexical meanings of one word of similar spelling. Instead, there are specialized synonym dictionaries representing close connotative meanings of various words irrespective of spelling and pronunciation.

Overall, synonym dictionaries can be distinguished in accordance to two principles. First, synonym dictionaries can be arranged either alphabetically or thematically (Brendel 2008, p. 8). Dictionaries can also be based on conceptual arrangement, which is often called thesaurus.

The second principle of synonymic classification is possible by distinguishing cumulative synonyms, loose synonyms with no sense discriminations and definitions in the dictionary, and distinctive synonyms that are accompanied by discriminations and definitions in the dictionaries (Brendel 2008, p. 8). Similar principles can also be applied to classifying antonymic representations of meanings.

Defining synonymic and antonymic groups of words is a complicated process because of the ambiguous etymology of certain words. Authors provide different meanings to words because of different perspectives they choose while grouping words into synonymic and antonymic rows.

In this respect, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms argues that a synonym “…will always mean one of two or more words in the English language which have the same or very nearly the same essential meaning” (Merriam-Webster 1984, p. 24).

With regard to the above-described classifications of principles by Brendel (2008), the Dictionary is arranged in an alphabetical order. Within the semantic group, the dictionary also includes words with antonymic, analogous, and contrastive meanings.

Purpose and Intended Purpose of Dictionaries

The process of dictionary composition originates from the time of the prescriptive tradition. Because language reflects public behavior, it significantly influences human judgments and perception concerning specific objects. Language, therefore, is a powerful tool for rendering ideas and, therefore, dictionaries are effective means for identifying specific meanings of definitions for the audience to make use of the appropriate words.

The emergence of dictionaries is the start of prescribing tradition. Dictionaries aim to define one aspect of language that has a more important value for a specific community than others. This variety is standardized in dictionaries, which serve as the major reference to learn vocabulary and grammar.

The history of dictionaries demonstrates that their authors have certain educational goals and define students as vital part of their target audience. Regardless of the type of the dictionaries, the common goal of these reference books is to make the audience understand or be able interpret the meaning of a specific word.

Because all dictionaries bear pedagogical nature, the intended audience is regarded as “the groups of perspective readers [that] usually include women, foreigner, and some direct or euphemistic term for the unlearned (DeMaria 2000, p. 11-12). Thus, Johnson’s dictionaries pursue audience who is deeply affected by lexicographic tradition.

The educational intent of the dictionaries is also revealed through the aim to instruct learners in a pragmatic way. In addition, the educational purpose of dictionaries can be fully met in case the individuals involved in reading them can acquire knowledge independently.

The educational purpose of dictionaries is also enhanced in case the intended audience strives to expand their linguistic vocabulary. This is of particular concern to thesaurus whose primary purpose is to provide the definition of a specific word through related semantic groups of words.

According to Livingstone (2005), the role of the dictionary audience is confined to “hearing and being hear, through the more common use is to stress the role of the hearer or receiver rather than the speaker or producer of communication” (p. 218). The role of the dictionaries, therefore, is to highlight the link between symbolic and social representations of a communication text by means of decoding.

With regard to the above presented purposes of the dictionaries, the audience plays a crucial role in presenting dictionary entries and establishing primary and secondary meanings of definitions.

There are various social pressures on dictionaries and thesauruses which have a potent impact on the degree of generality and shared knowledge and “make some otherwise verbose entries more reasonably sized…and give a greater sense of community ownership to a dictionary” (Crowley et al. p. 395). Hence, dictionary making depends on social, cultural, and national peculiarities.

Aside from lexicological and grammatical information about specific words presented in the dictionary, there are also historical and etymological dictionaries that represent origins and derivational characteristics of words. These functions are performed both by standardized and by subject-focused dictionaries. However, general dictionaries integrate these functions as secondary ones whereas subject-focused dictionaries prioritize the etymological information about a word or a phrase.

Aside from the primary function of dictionaries to list the meaning of words in alphabetical orders, there are also phrasal dictionaries that introduce a list of idioms, important quotations, citations, and bibliographies on a specific topic. Such dictionaries also bear an educational role, but with a different learning purpose. In particular, the dictionaries provide information on a wide range of writers, as well as refer to their most famous works.


Dictionary reveal social and cultural needs of the audiences (learners) who are need of expanding their knowledge on lexicography of words. Hence, the main purpose of dictionaries is to provide polysemic and homonymic interpretations of specific definitions for readers to make distinctions. Thesauruses also seek to explore word groupings of similar meaning, but of various spelling and pronunciation.

Reference List

Bopp, RE 2011, Reference and Information Services: An Introduction, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California.

Brendel, M 2008, Synonymy, Synonym Dictionaries and Thesauruses: Merriam Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms. GRIN Verlag, Munich, Germany.

Crowley, T, Siegel, J., & Eades, D 2007, Language Description, History and Development: Linguistic Indulgence in Memory of Terry Crowley. John Benjamins Publishing Company, New York.

Crystal, D 1997, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, UK.

DeMaria, R 2000, Johnson’s Dictionary and the Language of Learning. UNC Press Books, US.

Graddol, D 1994, Describing Language, Open University Press, Berkshire, UK.

Johnson, S, Walker, J, & Jameson, RS 1828, A Dictionary of the English Language, W. Pickering, US.

Livingstone, SM 2005, Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere. Intellect Books, USA.

Prasher, RG 1997, Library and Information Science: Information Science, Information Technology and Its Application, Concept Publishing Company, New Dehli.

Webster, N, & Walker, J 1830. American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definition of Words. Converse, US.

Yule, G 2010, The Study of Language. Cambridge University Press, UK.

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