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’s offices know that The Century Dictionary eventually grew into The Random House Dictionary, which powers much of 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, 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 we continue to innovate how words are discovered and what word learning can mean. The redesign of 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, is the essential reference for you.

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The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

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