I am working on a paper in which we need to reference the meaning of english words as foundation for the analysis in the paper (we are categorizing situations using these words, and there is no method of categorizing these items, so no precedent).

Before internet, using the encyclopedia Britannica or merriam-webster dictionary was easy for referencing the book itself. These days, words and meanings change and are sometimes updated. Even more, looking online for a dictionary for finding a word returns many results.

When searching for oxford dictionary there are three results http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/ http://www.oed.com/ http://oaadonline.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/

Merriam webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Cambridge: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/

The online dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/

And of course wikipedia usually has some definition.

For example, if we categorize something as 'multi-' , In this dictionary: http://oaadonline.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/multi multi is "More than one". However, in this http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/multi , multi is "More than two". That is a huge difference in terminology.

Is there an academic standard for the age of online dictionaries? Have words just begun to mean different things and its futile to use dictionaries in this way?

  • 10
    The OED is unquestionably the "gold standard" in English-language dictionaries. Everything else pretty much pales in comparison.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 5:17
  • 3
    Words have ALWAYS had somewhat fuzzy meanings. Local usage, jargon usage, usage change over time, and so on. I would assume that anything called a "learner's dictionary" is likely to be oversimplified, but beyond that I think you're going to simply have to accept that this is a fuzzy-logic problem. Natural language analysis is an EXTREMELY hard problem; it's a minor miracle that supercomputer systems such as IBM's Watson are finally making some progress in that area.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 5:21
  • 1
    If anything, the availability of on-line dictionaries has simply made apparent the fact that there never was such a thing as an "objective" or "true" dictionary definition. Choose a dictionary of high repute -- the OED seems like a good choice, but you could have factors which nudge you in a different direction, or force you to use more than one -- and stick to it.
    – tripleee
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 7:18
  • I edited your question because what is true from one language might not be for another one. For instance, there is an official French institution in charge of defining the language, with an online dictionary. I don't believe there is anything similar for the English language.
    – user102
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 8:01
  • @CharlesMorisset: There most definitely isn't.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 15:41

2 Answers 2

  • www.oed.com is the online version of the full, official Oxford English Dictionary. Requires a subscription (institutional or personal) to access. This is the site you should use whenever possible.

  • http://www.oxforddictionaries.com is an ad-supported version with some features cut. Avoid if you have subscription access to the full site (as any university should).

  • http://oaadonline.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ is, clearly, for learners of the English language. Use it as a guide for learning, sure - but not as a guide for writing papers.

The OED is the English dictionary to use. Other dictionaries are probably fine in all but the weirdest corner cases, but it helps to have some standardization.

Your journal probably specifies its own preferences in this regard. Every publisher's "guide for authors" that I have seen tells you to defer to the OED. Sometimes you'll see specific instructions to use either British or American spellings, and you may specifically be told how to spell words that don't have a British or American "standard" spelling, such as parametrize.

  • But when the topic of research is word meanings, simply going by the OED alone may be inadequate.
    – tripleee
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 8:09

onelook.com is a nice resource; it links to several online dictionaries from one convenient place. (Although it does not link to the OED, and I agree that the OED is both authoritative and reputable – more on that in a bit.)

Still, words often have fuzzy meanings, and it's often good to cite a couple of reputable sources when establishing definitions.

Your multi- example is a good one. When you find dictionaries have conflicting meanings of a word, it might be best to provide multiple definitions, and then declare which meaning you intend to use throughout your paper or thesis.

Collins has an interesting listing for multi-, in that it lists both of the meanings you allude to:

1 many or much ⇒ multiflorous, multimillion
2 more than one ⇒ multiparous, multistorey

It's also important to know what kind of dictionary you are citing, and what that dictionary's goal is. For example, some dictionaries list what they deem as primary meanings first, while others order a word's definitions based on how the word evolved. Others, like Cambridge Dictionary Online, are designed to be a learner's dictionary; CDO's definitions are relatively basic, and geared more toward those who are learning English as a second language. Some online dictionaries are wikis, like Wiktionary, which might be good for finding the most up-to-date slang usages, but are probably not the best sources to cite in scholarly works.

The goal of the OED is a comprehensive, exhaustive list of usages, starting from the very early usages, and going to more contemporary. For example, looking up multi- in the OED yields 10 results; one of them begins with:

  1. Forming parasynthetic adjectives, with the sense ‘more than one, several, many’. From the adjectives are formed adverbs (e.g. multiserially) and nouns (e.g. multicellularity). Some formations of this kind acquire a noun sense, as multicore, multiengine.

It then goes on to list dozens of examples, many of them rare or obsolete, along with references that stretch back as far as the 1700s, such as:

multinodal adj. having many nodes.
1839 J. Lindley Introd. Bot. (ed. 3) i. ii. 160 The multinodal cyme offers no fixed rule in the spirals of its nodes.
1902 Biometrika 1 264 These maxima must arise from the mortality curve itself being multinodal.
1979 Cell & Tissue Res. 199 225 Probit frequency analysis, a graphic method for determining whether a population is normally distributed, skewed, or multinodal.

multinodate adj. rare = multinodal adj.
1840 B. H. Smart Walker's Crit. Pronouncing Dict., Multinodate, or Multinodous, many-knotted.
1979 Proc. Linn. Soc. New S. Wales 102 194 Most often, on multinodate axes and particularly in large inflorescences, reduction in degree of branching does not occur alone.

multinodous adj. [ < classical Latin multinōdus ( < multi- multi- comb. form + nōdus knot: see node n.) + -ous suffix] Obs. rare—0 = multinodal adj.
1727 N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. II., Multinodous, full of Knots.
1840 B. H. Smart Walker's Crit. Pronouncing Dict., Multinodate, or Multinodous, many-knotted.

multinodular adj. Med. characterized by or composed of a number of nodules.
1900 W. A. N. Dorland Illustr. Med. Dict. 399/2 Multinodular, composed of many nodules.
1924 F. de Quervain Goitre 33 The fourth type is represented by the multinodular goitre with large nodules.

In other words, it's one thing to say that the OED is the "best" dictionary to use, but it may be overkill in some instances.

I'm active in some of the SE's English forums; I've found Macmillan and Collins to be reputable, and I would trust them for scholarly work. Miriam-Webster is often regarded as reputable, too, but I tend to avoid their online edition, owing to the number of ads they splash on a screen (my computer often starts running slower as soon as I go to one of their pages).

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