A Brief History of English Dictionaries

It’s hard to believe, but we didn’t always have the ability to reach for a dictionary to look up a word to see what it meant. Even when dictionaries were around, there were no guarantees that you could find the words, understand the definition, or that the information given was even correct!

In my latest video, I give a short history of dictionaries, talking about some of the most important ones, at least in my opinion. Click the link here to watch it.

Today, there are many dictionaries to choose from. Which one you use depends on, well, you. You may prefer learner dictionaries that give definitions in simple words that are easy to understand. I really like using a learner dictionary to teach ESL. However, more advanced students may require more advanced and specific definitions that include the etymology, or origin and history, of a word. The etymology of a word may not seem that important, but it really is. It gives us insight into where the word came from, how its usage has changed and often can provide a nuance, or shade, to the exact meaning. Synonyms and antonyms are often useful in helping to better understand a word or for vocabulary expansion. Spelling dictionaries provide an easy-to-find list of words broken down into syllables without long definitions and other distracting text, for quick reference. Finally, technical dictionaries cater to specific fields of study and provide definitions and usages based on very specific and detailed uses of technical words. An example of one of these would be a medical dictionary.

Some dictionaries also cater to American English over British English, and this depends on your preference. Dictionaries, like the OED, will include words that are archaic, or out of common use. This might be extremely useful for some readers, but confusing for others.

Technology has, of course, changed the way we use dictionaries. We used to have to first hunt down a big volume and then flip through the pages to find a word. Now, voice activated artificial intelligence technology let’s me find out just about anything I need to know with a simple voice command. “Siri, what does anthropomorphic mean?”

Technology has, however, inadvertently brought us back to the problem of knowing for sure that the information we are receiving is accurate. While we still can trust well-known sources, sometimes we find that we are getting information from a website that lacks credibility. I have googled a word and found myself on a forum or other site that uses popular opinion or comments to provide answers to questions, without any guarantee of the accuracy of. After all, anyone can set up a website or write a blog. This reminds me a bit of OED’s method of gathering definitions.

These are the dictionaries I use in my personal study, as well as English teaching and consulting:

My favorite American English dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/

My favorite British dictionary: http://www.oed.com/

Honorable mention British dictionary: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us

My favorite American learner’s: http://learnersdictionary.com/

My favorite British learner’s: http://www.ldoceonline.com/

My favorite etymology site: http://etymonline.com/



Metathesis in English

The term ‘metathesis’ means that when a word is pronounced certain vowel sounds or syllables are transposed, or shifted. It’s one of the more common reasons for mispronunciation of words in English. It happens because our brains often try to work out an easier, more logical or more comfortable way to say something. Even if we know the correct pronunciation of a word, it may be difficult to say it correctly. Another related reason for metathesis is popularity. Popular, but incorrect, pronunciation of a word may obscure, or make it difficult, to remember or use the correct pronunciation. But what really is correct pronunciation of a word? This may seem like an easy question, but in reality English has changed and is continuing to change. Some “correct” pronunciations of common words we use everyday are actually the metathesized versions of the original pronunciation that changed with time and usage. Watch my blog video at the link below to learn a little more and see some examples.



Word Roots, Suffixes and Prefixes

How can a better knowledge of word roots, suffixes and prefixes help you make progress in your English? Well, understanding these helps you understand difficult or long words better. A word root is the basic foundation of a word. It may or may not be a word on its own. Prefixes are added to the front of a word, and suffixes are added to the end of a word. Click to watch the YouTube blog video below to learn more!

Word Roots Video

Want to learn more about these building blocks of words? Check out this website link from Learn that Word. (Click here) for word roots and prefixes and this one also from Learn that Word (Click here) of suffixes. This website is a comprehensive dictionary of all these word pieces. By learning what the word roots, prefixes and suffixes mean in a word, you can more easily break down a difficult word and make sense of it.

Try it: Can you identify the word roots, prefixes and/or suffixes in these words:

  1. Interrupt
  2. Brilliant
  3. Countable
  4. Unbelievable
  5. Prepackaged
  6. Musician
  7. Spectator
  8. Zoology
  9. Sectarianism
  10. Digestion





Portmanteau Words

What are portmanteau words? A portmanteau is a word from French that means a large leather suitcase with two large compartments. But how can a suitcase relate to words? Why don’t you find out! (Click on the link below to watch the video)

Portmanteau Video on YouTube

Some examples (including the ones from the video and some additional ones too) of portmanteau words and definitions:

biopic- a biographic movie (biography/picture)
dramedy- a movie that is both comedic and dramatic (drama/comedy)
mockumentary- a satirical movie that is filmed in the way a documentary film would be made (mock/documentary)
newscast- a radio or television program that reports the news (news/broadcast)
soundscape- a melange of musical and sometimes non-musical sounds (sound/landscape)
brunch- a meal that combines breakfast and lunch and that is usually eaten in late morning (breakfast/lunch)
brainiac- a very intelligent person (brain/maniac)
blog- a website on which someone writes about personal opinions, activities, and experiences (web/log)
bodacious- very good or impressive (bold/audacious)
meld- blend or mix (melt/weld)
bit- a unit of computer information equivalent to the result of a choice between two alternatives(binary/digit)

Can you think of any others? (Look at the picture for a hint)


Each word makes up half of the whole new word, just like the two compartments of a portmanteau fold up to make one suitcase.


Learning About Chinese Characters

As some of you know from my posts, I recently returned from China. While visiting foreign counties, you can’t help but notice and compare cultural and linguistic differences. I found that I really learned a lot from my trip.  This is very useful to me, since I have many Chinese students that I teach online.  I have slowly been working at learning to speak and write some Mandarin over the last few months.  So, I thought I’d discuss a bit about some of the interesting things I learned about Mandarin Chinese that I find important.

English, as you may or may not know, is considered a Germanic language. It developed out of a number of other languages such as Flemish, Low-German, Dutch, etc. It also uses many words with Latin roots. It’s roughly 50% Saxon and 50% Latin based. Interestingly enough, although considered a Germanic language, English doesn’t borrow from German very much at all, rather it borrows quite a bit from Latin, Greek and even French. English uses an alphabet consisting of 26 letters. These letters combine to form sounds that then form words.

Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, developed from Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. It didn’t acquire the broad linguistic influence that English did. One of the biggest differences from English is that it doesn’t use an alphabet. Rather, Mandarin uses an ideographic and pictographic system. Ideographs are used to describe ideas or intangible qualities but not a particular word or phrase. Pictographs are used in conveying tangible information, like an object. These are utilized in their character system, which many native English speakers, like myself, find quite daunting to learn.

I decided to investigate the process of learning to write the Mandarin characters.  I found that when learning this system of writing, you’ll begin to learn a lot about Chinese culture as well. It’s quite interesting to see the characters and begin to understand the things they represent. It’s estimated that there’s about 40,000 to 50,000 characters in Chinese (though this number varies in other sources) but to communicate effectively you only really need to know about 3,000 to 4,000 characters. So far, I learned about two dozen.

However, I was disappointed to realize that with no alphabet it means there’s also no palindromes, anagrams, crossword puzzles, etc. But a distinct advantage to this system is that Chinese can be read everywhere and from any era. I learned that although someone from ancient China would not be understood by a modern Chinese speaker, however, if they were to write down what they were saying, a person today could easily understand it. That’s why the Chinese have no problem reading and understanding ancient text. This opens up a treasure of ancient poetry and prose to the modern reader.  Whereas in English, the language has evolved and changed so much that it’s difficult to decipher, even for an expert, an Old English or a Northumbrian English text.

Notice how the word for ‘mountain’ in looks like a mountain  and the word for ‘tree’ looks like a tree.  This image compares modern with ancient characters, showing how the pictograph system developed.  Words like this are the building blocks of the character system.

Mountain and Tree in ancient and modern Chinese

So while I continue my progress in learning my characters, I will leave you with a link to a fascinating YouTube video about learning characters with ShaoLin’s Chineasy.  I highly recommend this series to any English speaker wanting to learn more.

What is the Difference Between the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary?

This video blog post is about a question I often get from my students.  You too may have wondered about which dictionary is best to use. I also explain why I prefer to use the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Check out Merriam-Webster’s Ask the Editor video series for more interesting dictionary information.  You can click here to link to the one I mentioned in my video post.

Thanks for watching, and keep the questions coming!

What’s the story behind ‘Mug’?

If you were to look up in the dictionary what the word ‘mug‘ means, it would say something like ‘a large cup with a handle used for drinking hot beverages’.  That seems simple enough, but you would also see that it can mean the face or expression of a person, and it can be a verb, meaning to rob or attack someone.  You might also notice related words like, ‘mug shot’, which is a picture taken of a person by the police when they commit a crime.  The relationship between these meanings may seem quite distant, but, in fact they, are all related.


To see the relationship, you will need to go back to Scandinavia, where the origins of the word ‘mug’ can be traced.  It is similar to the Swedish and Norwegian words used for a drinking cup for warm drinks. Just like today, people often favored decorated or interesting looking mugs.  Since a big roundish cup looks like a head of a person, people often made mugs to look like people’s heads with various expressions on the faces.  The expressions were often funny or scary, so in time, the word ‘mug’ took on the meaning of a face, or especially an attention attracting expression.

How did this meaning become related to violence and crime?  Well, people that attacked other people in order to take their money or other valuables, would hit their victims in the face.  By the 1800’s criminals used the word as slang for attacking a person, especially a person with an expression on their face that made them appear vulnerable, innocent, weak or even foolish.  People like this were easy targets.  This has led to the common British English usage of ‘mug’ to mean a fool or easily deceived person.  As a side note, these ‘muggy’ people were sometimes easy targets because they were drunk (and often considered ‘damp’ or ‘wet’ because of being exposed to a large amount of liquid), as well as ‘foggy-brained’ in the sense that they didn’t think clearly.  This is where the weather expression ‘muggy’ meaning humid comes from.

Expression:  The look on someone’s face, such as a smile, frown, sneer etc.

Easy targetA person, place or thing that seems likely to be attacked of influenced.


It’s all about the mug!