Wikipedia:Dictionaries as sources
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It contains the advice of one or more Wikipedia contributors. It is not a Wikipedia policy or guideline, although it may be consulted for assistance on the WP:PSTS policy. This essay may contain opinions that are shared by few or no other editors, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community.
|This page in a nutshell: Dictionaries and glossaries present special challenges and limitations.|
Wikipedia generally prefers secondary sources in support of articles. It has a policy distinguishing among primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Dictionaries and glossaries present a special challenge in determining whether one is primary, secondary, or tertiary. One dictionary or glossary may be known as primary among linguists when for Wikipedia's purposes it is secondary. A dictionary or glossary that among linguists is considered derivative, thus apparently secondary, likely is for Wikipedia's purposes tertiary. And some glossaries will be considered primary for Wikipedia's purposes.
Dictionaries have limits on their utility. The earliest usages of words usually cannot be definitively determined from a dictionary. Neither can stylings, such as hyphened or open formats. Definitions are separate from etymologies; to use a centuries-old etymology as a modern definition is an error. And while dictionary definitions are usually reasonably precise, they are not quite mathematically precise for every word.
- 1 Dictionaries vs. glossaries
- 2 Kinds of dictionaries
- 3 Primary vs. derivative vs. secondary vs. tertiary
- 4 Limits on the usefulness of dictionaries
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Dictionaries vs. glossaries
Technically, a glossary is a dictionary limited to the vocabulary of a specialty. It may be in the back of a textbook or it may be long enough to be bound as a separate book. However, in practice, glossaries that are published bound as separate books are often called dictionaries regardless of scope. For instance, for the phrase "take two aspirin", a medical glossary would define only aspirin but a dictionary could define each of the separate words take, two, and aspirin. However, several medical glossaries are called dictionaries by their publishers. For purposes of this essay, dictionaries and glossaries are treated as alike.
Kinds of dictionaries
Evaluate overall, not by single entry
Classifying a dictionary is by its overall character. For instance, the original Oxford English Dictionary ([1st ed.] 1933) is generally a primary dictionary that is secondary for Wikipedia, yet reportedly at least one entry in it is not based on an identified source. That entry was provided by the dictionary's editor who had enough certainty of the word's existence to justify adding it without citing evidence. It would probably be absurd to classify that dictionary as less than primary because of that one entry. Likewise, a children's dictionary, generally derivative and thus secondary or tertiary for Wikipedia, could have cited a published source for one of its entries, yet it should not be considered a dictionary primary among linguists just because of the one exceptional entry.
A list of important people or of many people somehow involved in editing a dictionary, especially if they're advisors, is not very valuable when judging a dictionary. Because the actual roles of such people are nearly impossible to determine, use other criteria for evaluating a dictionary.
Specialized, online, multivolume, and old dictionaries
Dialectal, professional, slang, phrasal (phrase), neologistic (new-word), grammatical (about grammar), biographical, encyclopedic, foreign language, bilingual, polyglot, reverse, symbolic, picture-to-word, etymological, thesaural, reconstructive (for long-dead unwritten or unattested languages), dictionaries for professional audiences such as doctors, and other specialized dictionaries have to be judged as do standard dictionaries as to whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary for Wikipedia. Online dictionaries have to be judged like offline dictionaries. Being called unabridged is a little suggestive but not probative and so is the number of volumes. Fame or the lack of it does not matter; some less-well-known dictionaries are especially authoritative. Neither does whether it is new or old, although, if succeeded by a newer edition, it may no longer be reliable for Wikipedia.
Dictionaries with little for standards, consistency, or enforcement
A dictionary that hardly has standards or hardly enforces them is probably not a reliable source for Wikipedia. A wiki-based dictionary that anyone can edit without editorial oversight is not reliable, and that includes Wiktionary.
The names Webster's and Webster are so generically used by various publishers that they no longer signify a specific publisher, brand, or level of quality.
Articles about dictionaries don't much matter
For an article to exist about a dictionary, only notability is required. While Wikipedia articles about dictionaries may, of course, cite the respective dictionaries, if a word anywhere in Wikipedia has to be supported with a citation to a dictionary, in selecting the latter dictionary, consider whether the dictionary to be cited for that word is acceptable under the policies and guidelines for citing in Wikipedia, not whether the dictionary is the subject of an article.
Primary vs. derivative vs. secondary vs. tertiary
Dictionaries that are primary for Wikipedia
When entries are based on contributors' personal experiences, the dictionary is primary for Wikipedia. If someone, drawing on personal experience, invents a set of words and meanings and writes a dictionary of those inventions, that dictionary is based on the author's personal experience and thus is primary in Wikipedia. It is also primary to linguists, but that is a different meaning of primary.
A dictionary that is part of a novel or fictional film, TV show, or game is a source primary for Wikipedia. A dictionary by a scholar about the words in a novel or fictional film, TV show, or game may, however, be secondary, if the scholar has done an independent analysis and not simply copied the entries wholesale.
Words and meanings from a source that is primary for Wikipedia could become part of a language and then be found in a dictionary that is secondary or tertiary for Wikipedia. For example, a sports leader may invent a game, give the actions, player roles, and pieces descriptive names, and publish a dictionary of those nouns and verbs, and then a reliable scholar or publisher may add them to an authoritative dictionary that is primary among linguists, so that the sports leader's verbs and nouns are defined in a source secondary for Wikipedia, although such a sequence is unusual.
Dictionaries that are secondary for Wikipedia but primary among linguists
If a dictionary relies on publications, broadcasts, spoken words, and similar kinds of sources plus analysis by the dictionary's editors analyzing those sources to identify and provide words, spellings, inflections, dates, whether current, meanings, etymologies, pronunciations, functionalities, registers, and so on, the analysis being based on those sources and on general scholarship, but not on personal experience or invention, makes the dictionary a primary dictionary to linguists and secondary for Wikipedia.
Not all dictionaries make their primacy self-evident. Some cite sources in most entries, and such dictionaries are probably primary authorities among linguists and secondary for Wikipedia. Some may cite only authors or other sketchy information, and those dictionaries may well still be primary among linguists and secondary for Wikipedia. Some may only describe their methodologies in their frontmatter, which requires a judgment that the frontmatter is not false or excessively hyperbolic; if the frontmatter is more detailed, it may be more trustworthy, but that has to be judged for each dictionary.
For English, such dictionaries include the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster) (W3), the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS).
Some smaller dictionaries offered by the publishers of larger editions may also be primary among linguists and secondary for Wikipedia. For example, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ([4th] ed.) (SOED) apparently relies on publications for determining entries, yet is smaller than the Oxford English Dictionary because the SOED omits many words the OED carries because they haven't been found in recorded English in recent centuries.
Some derivative dictionaries (which are secondary among linguists and tertiary for Wikipedia because their content generally comes from more authoritative dictionaries and not directly from literature, speech, or other primary sources) contain nonderivative primary content. That happens when they contain one or more entries based on primary sources, especially likely with words that are too new to have been entered into a nonderivatve dictionary that is primary among linguists and secondary for Wikipedia. However, such dictionaries rarely, if ever, tell you which word entries are nonderivative. If you cite a derivative dictionary for information for which a nonderivative dictionary is needed, you will have to establish that the particular information is nonderivative or your content may be unauthorized synthesis, a policy violation.
Dictionaries that may be tertiary for Wikipedia but are secondary among linguists
Many dictionaries are based on other dictionaries. These are derivative dictionaries. Children's, student, and collegiate dictionaries, dictionaries offered for people just starting to learn English or learning to read, reverse dictionaries for finding words when all you know is a definition and for solving crossword puzzles, and dictionaries meant for word games like Scrabble will almost always be derivative. It does not matter whether the same publisher has more authoritative dictionaries or not; a dictionary may have been derived from other publishers' dictionaries. Derivative dictionaries are secondary among linguists. Whether they're secondary or tertiary for Wikipedia depends on each dictionary.
Limits on the usefulness of dictionaries
Etymology as modern restraint
Defining a word according to its etymology is a frequent descriptivist error. It seems sensible, but meanings can change at any time, whereas attestable etymologies are only discovered later and otherwise hardly change.
The belief that how a word was used at its beginning or in a certain long-ago time and place is how it should be used today, a prescriptivist error, may be valid for some words in some contexts, but not for most of them most of the time. It's not even the case for most words that came from, say, Latin. People have new needs. Language grows with us. Language is learned, therefore cultural, and culture includes other practices, such as slavery. We don't continue enslaving people today just because slavery used to be a respected tradition. How we ask people to work and whether we pay them changed. Words, too, change over time.
Definitions as precise
Most well-known words are defined only approximately and most synonyms are only near-synonyms. Exceptions with precise definitions include some mathematical and scholarly terms, some new terms, and some terms that are rarely used. But, for example, it's becoming common to place intensifying adjectives in front of unique, as in very unique, indicating that in popular use unique is understood to be inexact, and that pattern is true for many words in widespread use. A definition for nice normally is not exactly precise and that has not stopped most people from saying the word perhaps a few times a day, on average. If precision is desired, generally it's more pragmatic to seek greater precision, not perfection, and to consider using a phrase or a paragraph instead of searching for just the right lonely word.
Dates for words in dictionaries
Some dictionaries give the earliest known dates for a word or for one of its meanings, functionalities, or spellings. Some people mistakenly believe that the word, meaning, or spelling did not exist before that date. However, usually the date is only of the earliest evidence known to the dictionary's editors. Relatively few words, meanings, and spellings are deliberately coined on the record and then widely adopted into English, such as if a chemist invents a chemical and names it. Instead, most words, meanings, and spellings evolve with little notice, often rejected as mistakes before repetition and acceptance.
The date may be of only linguistic interest anyway. A word may simply replace a short phrase. To a nonlinguist, the difference may be trivial. Whether a word or a phrase was in use, the defined concept may already have had a handle that people were using before the new word was invented, assuming the date is accurate. So the concept may already have been communicated, and that may be more important than the word.
Most children doubtless don't know the definition of floccinaucinihilipilification but most children practice it for years without batting an eye. There are societies whose adults have no name for the color we English speakers call purple, but that doesn't mean that no flower where they live could be purple. If something got a name in one year, the thing could still have existed in earlier years; we agree on pre-name existence for neutrons. The color or the neutrons could possibly have been identified by a phrase or a paragraph long ago, and dictionaries might not list that. And matters that are rarely discussed don't need efficient tools for discussion (i.e., single words) and that which only a few people discuss may never be heard of by any dictionary editor, yet in both cases they are discussed by people despite dictionaries' universal silence.
Hyphenated, set solid, or spaced
The same word may appear styled in only one way in a dictionary but in two or three ways in English texts. The only difference in spelling, function, and meaning may be in the spelling having a hyphen, a space, or neither (set solid). (Linguists recognize as a single word a spelling that includes a space, such as open up in "it's time to open up the store", because open up behaves linguistically like a single word even if a word processor's spelling checker doesn't recognize it.) When a dictionary gives only one of these stylings, the choice may have been arbitrary or change may have occurred over time, but other stylings may be valid. Exceptions are rare; an exceptional set is sweetbread and sweet bread, which have different meanings.
- WP:Wikipedia is not a dictionary (policy)
- WP:Dealing with dictionary definitions (essay)
- WP:Identifying reliable sources (law) (essay, including on legal dictionaries)
- WP:Identifying and using style guides (essay, including on usage dictionaries)
- WP:Identifying and using tertiary sources (essay, including on dictionaries generally)
- WP:Tertiary-source fallacy (essay: dictionaries do not magically trump other sources, policy, and reasoning)
- WP:You are probably not a lexicologist or a lexicographer (essay)
- User Xyzzyplugh: Articles about words (user essay)
- "In the strictest sense, synonymous words scarcely exist". Standard Dictionary (Funk & Wagnalls, 1894), entry for synonyms or synonymous, as quoted in Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms: A Dictionary of Discriminated Synonyms with Antonyms and Analogous and Contrasted Words (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam (Merriam-Webster ser.), [4th ed.] 1973 (SBN 0-87779-141-4)), p. 19a (Survey of the History of English Synonymy, in Introductory Matter); accord, Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms, id., pp. 23a–25a, passim (Synonym: Analysis and Definition (titular word & colon italicized in original & subtitle not), in Introductory Matter).
- An editorial policy on which stylings are listed is stated in Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1966), p. 30a, col. 1, [§] 1.2 (The Writing of Compounds).
- Rabinovitch, Simon, Thousands of Hyphens Perish as English Marches On, in Reuters (U.S. ed.), September 21, 2007, 4:54 p.m. EDT, as accessed December 1, 2013 (regarding Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (6th ed.)).
- Meanings, not rarity:
Different meanings: The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [4th] ed. thumb index ed. 1993 (ISBN 0-19-861271-0)), entry sweet, section B, compare subentries sweetbread & sweet bread.
Same meaning whether solid or spaced: The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2d ed. microprint 1991 (ISBN 0-19-861258-3)) (reproduction of Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2d ed. 1989)), entry sweetbread.
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