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A dictionary is your friend
Jul 11, 2013


Monique Bohemier wrote: “You often mention slang, informal usage and standard English. What are these terms all about?”
Let’s answer that query by talking about dictionaries.
The first dictionaries were word lists on stone tablets. Carved by Babylonians and Sumarians, these lists were organized by topic not alphabetically, just as a thesaurus is set up today. Even after alphabets were invented, it was many centuries before they were used for these lists. So, the original dictionaries were sets of signs.
Centuries later, medieval scribes used the same system to help themselves learn Latin. Thus, the first European dictionaries were simply bilingual word lists.
In the late 16th century, scholars realized the need for a book to explain hard words in easy English. The first such English dictionary was Robert Cawdry’s Table Alphabeticall, a dictionary containing fewer than 3,000 entries.
Three more dictionaries soon appeared. None attempted to define every English word. Rather, they carried only “hard” words. Pronunciation data began in the 18th century.
The Imperial Dictionary was published in sections between 1847 and 1850. Here, broadened definitions included Americanisms, slang and colloquialisms. As early as the 17th century, identification of parts of speech (verbs, nouns, etc.) accompanied definitions.
Remember: a verb is a word denoting action; a noun is a word that names things; an adverb describes (modifies) the verb’s action; and an adjective modifies a noun.
In dictionaries, a verb is designated by an Italicized v.,  a noun is n.; a. means adjective; adv. means adverb.
The foregoing refer only to simple parts of speech. The type of verb, or its form, are also given, for example, intr. v.  (intransitive verb), inf. (infinitive).
Most dictionaries offer an abbreviation key, usually at the book’s beginning.
Dictionaries also categorize words in relation to Standard English. Categories include obs. (obsolete); coll. (colloquial); vulg. (vulgar); derog. (derogatory); dial. (dialect); sl. (slang); inf. (informal); pej. (pejorative); and non-st. (non-standard).
Obsolete — no longer used. Colloquial — used in conversation; not advised for formal use. Vulgar — coarse; words with social taboos attached. Derogatory — offensive. Dialect — regional; contains non-standard usage. Slang — informal figurative language; often short-lived. Informal — not incorrect, but not found in formal writing. Pejorative — disparaging; insulting. Non-standard — not belonging in educated speech.
Dictionaries also guide pronunciation. In parentheses following each word entry, we find a hyphenated phonetic spelling of that word. The squiggles and symbols above certain letters in that spelling are called “diacritical marks.” These marks indicate how that letter is said. They tell if an “e” is pronounced as in “pretty,” or as in “pet,” or as in “detail,” or if it is silent.
If we don’t know what these marks mean, they’re illustrated in most dictionaries at the bottom of each page. Oxford Canadian uses a little box in the bottom corner of each right-hand page.
Dictionaries also show where to put stress on a word by using this symbol: `.
Dictionaries aren’t created equal. Some give usage advice. Some offer a word’s history. Others, taking on an encyclopedic tone, list names of well-known people, places and events. Still others contain maps and pictures.
Use your dictionary. It’s your friend.
(Write to Kathleen Teillet at: 6110-177 Victor Lewis Drive, Winnpeg MB, R3P 2A1)