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The Dictionary

General Knowledge | 6-12 yrs | Interactive, Learning Pod

Introduction (intrəˈdəkSHən) /n.

1. something spoken, written, or otherwise presented in the beginning or introducing something

Before we understand what a dictionary is, let’s explore the idea of language a little with the help of a fable.

When all humans lived in the same place and spoke the same language, they decided to build a city with a tower that went all the way up to the heavens. God was angered by this attempt to take his power so he destroyed the tower. And to ensure that this would not happen again he scattered the people by creating different languages.

When I speak the same language as someone else, I have the ability to place a thought from my head into someone else’s. That is why this story called The tower of Babel is interesting, because it tells us of the power of being able to understand each other and work together.

Just like you use a remote control to change the channel on your television to suit your mood, you can use language to change the setting in someone’s brain to suit your interest. So think of the dictionary as a tool that allows us to harness the power of communication because it explains the meanings of words and how to write them.


The first step to learning how to use any dictionary is knowing the alphabet well. Most languages use a standard form where words are organised in alphabetical order. You will have to be able to judge whether a word comes directly before or after another depending on the letter it begins with. If two words begin with the same letter, the one after decides the correct order, and then the next, and so on.

Let me explain-
bark, bare and barn all have ‘bar’ as their first three letters.
To look them up in the dictionary you will have to first find the page with the word bar:

bar (bär)/n.
A long rod or rigid piece of wood, metal, or similar material, typically used as an obstruction, fastening, or weapon.
A unit of pressure equivalent to a hundred thousand newtons per square meter or approximately one atmosphere.

bar (bär)/v.
Fasten (something, esp. a door or window) with a bar or bars: “she bars the door”

Except for; apart from: “everyone, bar a few ascetics, thinks it desirable”

Any dictionary will first display the word in bold followed by its phonetic pronunciation in brackets.
The n. denotes that the explanation below is of its noun form. There could be multiple meanings, which are listed in order of how commonly it is used.
The v. denotes the word in its verb form.
The prep. denotes the meaning of the word in its prepositional form.
Meanings most often have a sentence to explain its usage.

Now that you have found the word bar, you can then go down the alphabet to find ‘bare’, since ‘e’ comes before ‘k’ and ‘n’. To test yourself, you can try looking up a 5 letter word.


It is interesting to know that the story of the Tower of Babel comes from the same region where the oldest known dictionaries were found. These 4000 year old dictionaries were cuneiform tablets that translated words from Sumerian to Akkadian, two languages of the Mesopotamian civilisation. They were a word list that told you what its equivalent was in two different languages without actually explaining their meanings.

The trend of bilingual dictionaries continued for a very long time. However, people also created word compilations after the 6th century BC that were dedicated to the understanding of words from the same language. One of the oldest existing dictionaries comes from China and is called the Erya. It was broken up into 19 sections explaining things like relatives, utensils, music, foods, plants, animals, instructions and words themselves (grammar and language).

The first Sanskrit dictionary was called the Amarakosa, which was written in verse and contained 10,000 word meanings. It was also called Namalinganushasan.
If we break down this long word we get:
nama- instructions; linga-gender; anu- noun; shasana- inscription
( or )
‘instructions concerning nouns and gender.’ You may look at the word breakdown and the meaning here and say that they are not exact. This is because certain things get ‘lost in translation.’

Arabic dictionaries made between the 8th and 14th century BC were ordered by the rhyme order (of the last syllable) or the alphabetical order of the root word. If the list explained words of hadith or of the Qur’an they were generally listed in alphabetical order of the first letter.


  • Before we learn how to read the modern English dictionary, let me give you a short history of the English language in bullet form-
  • The Romans leave the British isles in 410 AD. They do not leave much of their language, Latin behind.
  • Germanic settlers called Angles and Saxons come to Britain around 450 AD. They bring their languages with them.
  • Soon after, Latin returns to the British isles in full force with Christianity.
  • English changes and develops a great deal following the invasion of the Frenchman William the conqueror in 1066 AD.
  • After the French are driven out of England, it is the time of Shakespeare. This author single-handedly added around 2000 new words and phrases into the English language before his demise in 1616.
  • Around the same time (1611), the King James Bible is first printed. This is ground-breaking because in translating the entire Old and New Testaments numerous phrases and idioms enter the way people use this language.
  • Right after the release of the King James Version, Britain sees a rise in scientific research. It is then that science in Britain begin to employ English as a medium of instruction. These men add words to the English language at a rapid rate.
  • English was expanding in all directions at a very rapid rate and so a new breed of academics known as lexicographers was born. They took it upon themselves to compile all the words that had been created, borrowed, and stolen from different languages and put them all in one place- a dictionary. The first big project to create such a book was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of The English Language, which took him 9 years to write.
  • Creating a dictionary is somewhat a hopeless task because language is always evolving and by the time one book is printed, there are already 100s of new words waiting to be entered. However, this book changed the English language because you could look up a standardised spelling meaning of a word.
  • In 1857 a new book was started called the Oxford English Dictionary. It took 70 years and 3 editors before it was finished in 1927. You have already read how English evolved by pulling words from its Germanic, French, and Latin ancestries. This is why some words will have multiple meanings with multiple forms. It is also the reason why some dictionaries will tell you the root of the word and which language it was acquired from.
  • When the British came to India in search of new trade, they brought with them the English language. As the East India company secured more holdings their language evolved to include many words from various Indian languages. Below are a few:


bandana- a scarf that you tie around your head
bandhna: meaning to tie

bungalow- a house that stands alone and has a garden around it
from Bangla: Hindi word for Bengal style

chutney- a spicy condiment made by crushing fruits or vegetables with spices
chatni: meaning to crush

pundit- a priest or scholar

verandah- meaning courtyard


avatar- a reincarnation
avatara: meaning descent

mantra- a statement that is frequently repeated
taken literally: meaning holy message or text

maya- meaning illusion

sutra- meaning rule

finale (fəˈnalē)
the last piece in a division

Words that you find in the dictionary come together to make up a powerful social technology called language. We can easily coordinate our activities by communicating with someone else using this tool. The story of the tower of Babel tells us of the benefits of cooperation, which is made possible through language. The dictionary gives us the ability to come together once more and build sky-scrapers and Eiffel Towers, and communicate in multiple languages over international borders. The dictionary, like language is constantly evolving to accommodate the changing world around it. Whether you are trying to improve your English vocabulary, or trying to use a bilingual dictionary on your travels around the world, knowing how to effectively use the dictionary is an important skill.
Dictionaries in some languages are not ordered the same way as an English one. Find out which ones are different and scribble down the differences.

Look for the following words in the dictionary:
The longest word
3 words without any vowels

Browse through the dictionary and find 1 word with a Latin root, 1 with a Greek root and 1 with a French root.

To read and watch more such such interesting General Knowledge articles and videos, go here.