Dictionary vs encyclopaedia

After taking a course in lexicography, I found it astonishing that there was people who didn’t quite understand the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopaedia. Even more disturbing is that I have seen a great many scientific papers in which dictionaries have been used as though they had encyclopaedia like knowledge. 😥

Luckily, the distinction is quite easy.🙂 Dictionaries don’t need to define a term any more than what is necessary to avoid people confusing the word definitions with each other. This means that if a dictionary has only words: cat, dog and table, the following definitions would be enough:

  • Cat: A living thing that says meow
  • Dog: A living thing that barks
  • Table: A non-living thing that doesn’t make a sound

In this example all the entries have just enough information about the words they describe that a person reading the dictionary wouldn’t confuse them with one another. But as we know there is more to these things than what was described here, it is just not a dictionary’s function to describe them in further detail.

If you are seeking detailed descriptions that might give you the history of the dog, cat or table, or all sorts of different varieties of them and their socio-cultural context and so on, you should take a look at an encyclopaedia. An encyclopaedia, such as Wikipedia, provides a lot more information than a dictionary, with a lot of detail. Its function is not to give a short adequate description for each word stored in it so that the descriptions cannot be confused with each other. No, its function is to convey much more information than that.

So, as you can see, a dictionary definition should only be treated as such. It’s by no means meant to give a full description of a phenomenon that people can cite as the one and only absolute definition of the concept. 🤓

Structures of a dictionary

Traditionally, dictionaries are considered to have two principal structural levels: microstructure and macrostructure. Macrostructure is the vertical structure of a dictionary, for example, how lemmas are sorted, alphabetically or thematically.

Microstructure refers to the horizontal structure of a dictionary. E.g. how lemmas are defined, are they defined by translation into another language or by a longer description in the same language as the lemma itself.


This was a short introduction to lexicography. ☺️