The word "dictionary" typically refers to a book that lists the words of a language alphabetically, and shows the spelling and meaning of each along with other information (e.g., pronunciation, examples of use, derived forms, origin and history) deemed relevant by the dictionary editors (lexicographers). The best Canadian example of this, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, was published in 1998, with a second edition following in 2004. A dictionary can also be a reference book that explains items listed in alphabetical order; for example, in Canada, the multi-volume Dictionary of Canadian Biography.


Modern dictionary-making is based on a descriptive approach to the language. Serious dictionaries are based on an examination of large citation files or collections of whole texts, which allow the lexicographers to see exactly how the language is currently being used. Lexicographers generally select words and senses for inclusion based on the needs of their particular users.

Dictionaries can be roughly divided into two main categories: historical and current. Historical dictionaries, of which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the best known, trace the development of words over time, with separate meanings of each word presented in the order in which they made their appearance in the language. Historical dictionaries attempt to find the earliest written evidence of a word, and illustrate their entries with examples taken from written sources. Current dictionaries focus on the vocabulary in current use and order the senses of the words according to their familiarity to the modern user, often leaving out archaic senses altogether. Subcategories of current dictionaries include dictionaries for adult native speakers, second-language learners' dictionaries and children's dictionaries.

Early Dictionaries

The earliest dictionaries of English, beginning with Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall ... (1604), gave explanations of "hard words." The first book that sought to be a complete dictionary of English was Nathaniel Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), a starting point for Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which established lexicographical tradition by using quotations from literature to illustrate the meanings of words. In 1828, Noah Webster produced An American Dictionary of the English Language, a two-volume work which asserted the distinctiveness of American English and established alternative spellings such as -er (instead of -re) and -or (instead of -our) endings.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 1884–1928, published in 12 volumes with a supplement in 1933) traces the origins and development of English words since Anglo-Saxon times. An updated Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (ed. R.W. Burchfield), published in four volumes from 1972 to 1986, was integrated into the 20-volume second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (eds. J. Simpson and E.C.W. Weiner, 1989), which included some 5,000 new items, for a total of over 600,000 word forms illustrated by almost 2.5 million quotations. Beginning in 1984, computer scientists at the University of Waterloo developed a system for storing and searching the text through a computer database and assisted on this edition.

Canadian Dictionaries

All dictionaries reflect the culture for which and within which they are written. Canadian-published dictionaries, therefore, are an essential part of defining a Canadian identity.

Dictionaries used in English Canada have too often been either American or British, few of them showing Canadian terms or Canadian variant spellings and pronunciations. Historically, dictionaries published in Canada had little Canadian content. Eventually, the desire of school authorities to purchase books of Canadian origin and manufacture resulted in several publishers producing dictionaries that were merely reprintings of American works with some Canadian entries incorporated, such as The Winston Dictionary for Canadian Schools (1937).

However, serious research into Canadian English experienced an upsurge in the late-1950s and 1960s, resulting in A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (1967), edited by Walter S. Avis, C. Crate, P. Drysdale, D. Leechman and M.H. Scargill. It presents more than 10,000 words that originated in Canada, have meanings peculiar to Canada or special significance in Canada. Since this is a historical dictionary, many of these words are no longer used. A shorter version, A Concise Dictionary of Canadianisms, was published in 1972.

A number of projects in the 1960s and 1970s used this research to produce dictionaries based on American models, primarily for schools, that included more Canadian content than their predecessors. Chief among these were the Gage dictionaries based on the American Thorndike-Barnhart series, of which the best known is the Gage Canadian Dictionary (rev. 1983); a series of Winston dictionaries, of which the most recent is the Compact Dictionary of Canadian English (1976); and the Funk and Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary, Canadian Edition (1973), published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, with superficial revisions since. The Penguin Canadian Dictionary, with a fairly limited word list and some serious omissions, appeared in 1990.

Oxford University Press Canada established a permanent dictionary department in 1992, which based a series of thoroughly researched current Canadian dictionaries on citation files of over 14 million words of Canadian text covering all genres and subject matter. The first of these dictionaries, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, was published in 1998. A second edition followed in 2004, containing about 300,000 entries, around 2,220 of which are considered true Canadianisms. However, due to declining sales of print dictionaries, Oxford University Press Canada closed its dictionary division in 2008 and announced that freelancers would be assigned the task of updating future editions, though none have since been forthcoming.

Regional Dictionaries

A number of Canadian regional dictionaries in the same historical tradition as the OED have been published. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English (1982; 2nd ed. 1990), edited by G.M. Story, W.J. Kirwin and J.D.A. Widdowson, uses authenticated oral evidence as well as citations from Newfoundland literature and folklore. T.K. Pratt's Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English (1988) is similarly based on oral surveys and written sources. A historical dictionary of Cape Breton English is in preparation under W. Davey and R. MacKinnon.

Like anglophone Canadians, francophone Canadians have long had to make do with dictionaries reflecting a different linguistic reality than their own. Furthermore, since the first appearance of the conservative and prescriptive Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française in 1694, there has been a trend towards marginalization of varieties of French from outside France. Other important historical dictionaries of French have been Émile Littré's Dictionnaire de la langue française (five vols., 1863–72; new four-volume ed., 1974, Alain Rey, ed.), Paul Robert's Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française (seven vols., 1965; 2nd ed., nine vols., 1985), and the 16-volume Trésor de la langue française: Dictionnaire de la langue du 19e et du 20e siècle (1971–94).

With the publication in 1880 of Oscar Dunn's Glossaire franco-canadien, francophone Canadians started to show how their variety of French differed from the standard form in France. In 1930, La Société du parler français au Canada published the Glossaire du parler français au Canada. Louis-Alexandre Bélisle compiled and published the Dictionnaire général de la langue française au Canada (1957), a significant work of scholarship which was revised in 1974 and then republished as Dictionnaire nord-américain de la langue française (1979).

An ongoing tendency in Québécois dictionaries has been a tension between attempts to align Québécois French with European French norms, and the desire to assert and legitimize usages peculiar to Québec. In the wake of the Quiet Revolution, several books celebrated the distinctiveness of contemporary Québec French, often admitting variant forms and expressions, such as anglicisms and vulgarisms, which were frowned upon by traditionalists. A popularist example is Léandre Bergeron's Dictionnaire de la langue québécoise (1980), translated into English as The Québécois Dictionary (1982). A more scholarly presentation of Canadianisms in French is Gaston Dulong's Dictionnaire des Canadianismes (1989), based on dialectological research carried out throughout Eastern Canada, including Acadia. (See also: French Language.)

Canadian francophones, like anglophones, have suffered from having a Canadian label placed on imported dictionaries that have been reprinted with little or no revision (e.g., Dictionnaire Beauchemin canadien, 1968). More thorough adaptations of French dictionaries appeared in the late 1980s and 1990s with the Dictionnaire du français Plus, à l'usage des francophones d'Amérique (ed. C. Poirier, 1988) and the Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui (ed. J-C. Boulanger, 1992; rev. 1993). These works broke new ground as the first serious dictionaries to represent Canadian French usages as valid and standard rather than marginal by comparison with Parisian French. They were able to draw on the vast research compiled at Université Laval by the team of the Trésor de la langue franàaise au Québec, which aimed to publish the Dictionnaire du français québécois (Dictionary of Québécois French), a historical dictionary of Canadian French, in 1998, under the direction of C. Poirier.

Only three bilingual dictionaries have been published in Canada: Nugent's Up-To-Date English-French and French-English Dictionary, a pocket dictionary published in 1905; The Canadian Dictionary/Dictionnaire canadien (ed. Jean-Paul Vinay), a small bilingual dictionary published in 1962; and The Canadian Bilingual Dictionary/Dictionnaire bilingue canadien (ed. Roda Roberts), a larger bilingual dictionary prepared by teams of researchers at the University of Ottawa, the Université de Montréal and Université Laval, and published by McClelland & Stewart in 2009.

Aboriginal Languages

A number of dictionaries of Aboriginal languages in Canada now exist. In the 1970s and 1980s, the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History) produced bilingual dictionaries of Abenaki, Heiltsuk, Kwakwa'la (formerly known as Kwakwaka’wakw), Mohawk and Mi’kmaq. European missionaries also performed important lexicographical work, notably the Cree-English English-Cree Dictionary (G. Beaudet, 1995) and L. Schneider's Ulirnaisigutiit: An Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Quebec, Labrador and Eastern Arctic Dialects (1985). (See also: Aboriginal Languages of Canada).

Old English

Another major dictionary project undertaken in Canada is the Dictionary of Old English, which is being prepared under the auspices of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. This dictionary gives full historical coverage of the earliest period of English (600–1150 AD), complementing the treatment of the later stages of the language in the OED. It is one of the few dictionaries of any language to be based on a comprehensive examination of the surviving evidence: its electronic database, from which words and citations are drawn, consists of at least one copy of every extant old English text. Eight of the 22 letters of the dictionary have been published online: A, Æ, B, C, D, E, F and G; work is in progress on H.