Main Library · Special Collections · Dictionaries

A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699)
A Dictionary of the Chippewa Indian language (1943)
A Dictionary of Color (1930)
A Compleat English Dictionary (1735)
A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch (1888)
A New Dictionary of Natural History; or, Compleat Universal Display of Animated Nature (1785)
A Phonetic Shorthand and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1883)
Lexicon Tetraglotton: An English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary (1660)
Slang Dictionary of New York, London and Paris (1880)
Illustration from the Slang Dictionary

The dictionary is an essential tool in the everyday use of language. Readers, writers, students, and scholars rely upon the information the dictionary provides concerning etymology, pronunciation, definintion, and, of course, spelling. It is also a lexical bench mark for the survey of a language at a given moment of time. As such, dictionaires are an important resource for the study of the evolution of language and the society it serves.

About the collection

The English Language Dictionary Collection finds its roots in the Louis E. Kahn Collection of Dictionaries, which was donated to the Library by Mrs. Sarah Kahn in 1961. This collection has grown into one of the major collections of English language dictionaries in the United States, as the Library continues to pursue Mr. Kahn’s ambition to acquire one copy of every edition of every English language dictionary published through 1876. It contains first editions, as well as later editions, of the works of such great lexicographers as Samuel Johnson, John Walker, and Noah Webster.

Over the years the Friends of the Library have also made many generous contributions to our dictionary collection, including: The Guide into the Tongues, With Their Agreement and Consent One with Another (John Minsheu, 1617), A Dictionary of the English Language (Samuel Johson, 1773), and A New Law Dictionary Intended for General Use As Well As for Gentlemen of the Profession (Richard Burn, 1792).

Notable titles in the collection include:

A print catalog of our dictionary collection is available in the Cincinnati Room.

The Oxford English Dictionary

We can’t miss the opportunity to mention the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. The OED (as it is fondly known) is the definitive source of information about the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over “half a million words, both past and present” in the English language. Beyond the sheer size and scope of the dictionary is the fascinating story of the 70-year odyssey to produce it. A cast of brilliant and obsessive scholars and volunteers devoted their lives to working on the project. Simon Winchester detailed their efforts in two terrifically entertaining books: The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although you’ll find the 20-volume print edition at the Main Library, you'll also find the online version of the OED in our collection of research databases.

Using the collection

Our dictionary collection is housed in the Main Library’s Cincinnati Room. If you’d like to browse through some of the material, just stop by the Cincinnati Room service desk—our staff will be happy to assist you!

Related Resources

Books

Magazines

On the Web

  • Dictionaries and Meanings. The British Library site traces the history of English dictionaries from the 1500s to the present day.
  • AskOxford. Word of the Day, Quote of the Week, articles about the origins of words, and practical advice about spelling, grammar, letter writing, etc.
  • OED Reading Programme. Find out how you can contribute words to the OED.
  • Dictionary Society of North America. Newsletters, a “suggested reading” bibliography, and information about their dicussion list.

Did you know?

  • The word lexicographer (compiler of a dictionary) entered the English language in 1658. In his seminal work, Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson included the phrase "a harmless drudge" in his definition of the word lexicographer.
  • According to the OED, the word dictionarius was used circa 1225 by Joannes de Garlandia, an English poet and grammarian, as the title of a collection of “Latin vocables, arranged according to their subjects, in sentences, for the use of learners.”
  • Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, printed in 1604, is generally accepted as the first single-language English dictionary. A reproduction of the book is in our collection.
  • Locavore was selected as the 2007 word of the year by the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Merriam Webster took a slightly different approach in choosing their word of the year. The winner was based on votes by visitors to their website. The winner? w00t!
  • The Oxford English Dictionary was supposed to take 10 years to complete. It took 70! It originally was supposed to consist of 4 volumes (6,400 pages). The first edition was 10 volumes (15,490 pages)!