Canadian Lexicography Resources

Lexicography is the art of writing definitions and dictionaries. Lexicographers, dictionary specialists, must survey or compile and then study the words and expressions of a given language in their various forms and meanings. In pursuing its basic objective of producing dictionaries normally designed for all types of readers, lexicography also strives to synthesize knowledge and facts drawn from the sciences of etymology (word origins), historical semantics, lexicology and semantics per se (the study of meanings).

Lexicographers detail the meaning (semantic description) of an entire nomenclature, that is, the list of words that serve as entries in a dictionary and are accompanied by a definition. The process considers both monosemic words (one meaning only) and polysemic words (several meanings). In most cases, single-meaning or monosemic words belong to specialized, technical or scientific vocabularies, whereas polysemic (multi-meaning) words normally make up everyday language used by the general population. When designing a dictionary, lexicographers rely on a corpus of examples-either authentic or crafted by the lexicographer, and taken from both literary and everyday sources-that serve as the starting point for semantic descriptions and bear witness to their relevance.

Dictionary categories

There are many types of dictionary, even beyond what are known as lexicons or glossaries, which list words from a specific field (medicine, aviation, chemistry, astronomy, etc.) In reality, there are four dictionary categories: encyclopedic, language, bilingual and specialized.

Encyclopedic dictionaries

The prime characteristic of encyclopedic dictionaries is that they list both common nouns and proper nouns. They also have encyclopedia-like descriptions in all branches of knowledge, from medicine, philosophy and botany to marine biology, linguistics literature and mathematics.

Encyclopedic dictionaries define both words and concepts; as such, they resemble encyclopedias to a degree, but they have to strive for exhaustiveness in the number of words covered, which is the hallmark of dictionary production, especially considering that dictionaries include words that don't need encyclopedic background, but rather a simple, straightforward definition.

Language dictionaries

Language dictionaries list common nouns, briefly summarize their origin (especially an etymological chain), as well as their level (or register: formal, slang, colloquial, etc.); meanings are presented either in historical order of appearance or in decreasing order of currency or frequency.

Because they explain the meaning of words, language dictionaries draw facts and information from related fields like etymology, historical lexicology and semantics. What's more, because they present word meanings recorded from actual usages of the language in question, language dictionaries contain a plethora of examples that illustrate how words operate in their natural or actual settings.

Nomenclatures in language dictionaries list more than words; they also contain expressions or "locutions," lists of prefixes and suffixes, as well as "morphological units" that convey a specific meaning or message. In short, these dictionaries focus more on describing languages per se than on relating reality-even if the two are intertwined.

Bilingual dictionaries

Instead of presenting the relation between the words of a given language and their definitions, bilingual dictionaries list both those words and their translations or equivalents in another language. As such, they help users with both comprehension and translation needs. Generally speaking, in addition to the semantic information needed to compile the inventory of word meanings (which are rarely monosemic, that is, having only one meaning), bilingual dictionaries some times provide phonetic information to help with pronunciation, as well as details on language level (the "register"). Of course, bilingual dictionaries can combine virtually any two languages (English-French; Dutch-German; Chinese-Japanese; English-Inuktitut; French-Spanish, etc.). There are also trilingual dictionaries presenting equivalents for three languages instead of two.

Now and then, when translating from one language to another, one has to use a " bridge language " (third language), because no bilingual dictionary exists between the two first languages. Thus, if there's no French-Quechua dictionary, users first have to go through a Spanish-Quechua work to then make their way into French. With its 12 official languages, the European Parliament occasionally has to rely on bridge languages to go, for example, from Greek to Danish; if no Greek-Danish translator is available, authorities call first on a Greek-French or Greek-English specialist before enlisting a French-Danish or English-Danish translator. In this instance, then, French or English serves as the "bridge" language. Of course, on top of the added translation time and costs, going through a bridge language increases the discrepancy between the source language and the ultimate target language.

Lexicons or specialized dictionaries

These works list the terms from a specialty area like medicine, astronomy, botany, marketing and computing. The term "medical dictionary" or "astronomy dictionary" is used, but incorrectly, as these publications are actually lexicons.

Dictionaries can also focus on purely linguistic themes: etymological dictionary; dictionary of synonyms, dictionary of slang (from different social classes, for instance), dictionary of rhymes, etc. Some dictionaries present the idiomatic expressions of a specific language (quotations, archaisms, regional usages in France, or Canada, or England, etc.). Canada, for example, has dictionaries of Quebec French or Acadian French, and of Newfoundland English or Prince-Edward-Island English.

The first lexicographical works

Of course, the first French-language and English-language dictionaries were produced not by Canadians, but by the French and the British, and later the Americans. For this summary, we look only at works published in the 19th and the 20th centuries, though some dictionaries and lexicographical works were published before then.

French-language lexicography

The foundations of modern French-language dictionaries and lexicographical descriptions were laid by Émile Littré (1801-1881), Pierre Larousse (1817-1875) and Paul Robert (1910-1980). Littré's Dictionnaire de la langue française, published in 1876, stood as a paramount work at the time, listing a huge number of technical and scientific words. Published at about the same time was Pierre Larousse's Le Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, a learned survey of the language that would spawn a whole succession of encyclopedic dictionaries (Le Grand Larousse universel), a remarkable language dictionary (Le Grand Larousse de la langue française) and a series of smaller encyclopedic dictionaries aimed at the general public (Le Petit Larousse).

In the 20th century, more and more French-language dictionaries joined the lexicographic ranks, for example, Paul Robert's extensive nine-volume Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française (1953-1964). Afterward, the Robert editors and writers produced other dictionaries, including Le Petit Robert (1967), seen as one of the best dictionaries of its kind in French, and the four-volume Le Dictionnaire universel des noms propres (also called Le Robert II, 1974). In 1971, research began for the formidable Trésor de la langue française (TLF), whose 16-volume edition was finally published in 1994; its breadth and richness make it arguably the most impressive of all French-language dictionaries: more than 100,000 words, 270,000 definitions and over 430,000 examples. The TLF also has an electronic version (TLFI) available on CD.

English-language lexicography

First on our list is American lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843), whose biggest claim to fame was An American Dictionary of the English Language; next is Joseph Emerson Worcester (1784-1865) author of the Dictionary of the English Language (1860) and Charles Richardson (1775-1865), who published the New Dictionary of the English Language. With its lexicographic efforts, the Philological Society gave rise to works like the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Murray's Dictionary (for Sir James A. H. Murray, 1837-1915, one of the authors). The renowned Oxford English Dictionary's publication spanned the period between 1884 and 1928 (128 fascicles), and from the time of its initial approval, the monumental work took some 70 years to complete. Together, the first edition's 12 volumes and its supplement describe the history of roughly 250,000 English words; they also present more than two million quotations and define close to 415,000 words. The 1989, 20-volume second edition integrates the entire four-volume supplement and tops the 616,000-word mark. The OED also has two concise editions: Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. A less ambitious but nonetheless remarkable project is the 1943 four-volume Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, edited by Sir William Alexander Craigie.

But not a single one of these works was Canadian. So, we now shift our attention to purely Canadian lexicography, and we've divided our survey into three sections:

  • Dictionaries of English in Canada
  • Dictionaries of French in Canada
  • Bilingual dictionaries (French-English)

Each section contains links to summaries of the works surveyed and their authors. To continue, click on the following links: