We Love the Century Dictionary

by Grant Barrett on October 5, 2009

O NE of our favorite parts of Wordnik is the Century Dictionary. With more than 530,000 definitions and discursive notes, it is the second-largest English-language dictionary ever published.


But the Century isn’t just big—it’s beautiful, too. To quote expert etymologist Anatoly Liberman, “The Century is one of the great reference works in American history (some would say the greatest).” In the Oxford History of English Lexicography, Thomas Herbst and Michael Klotz write that “it is a superb dictionary in many respects and still has much to offer to those interested in the vocabulary of the period. It was from the beginning a quixotic venture (as many new dictionaries are), and it occupies a singular place in American lexicography for its attempt to marry the highest form of the printers art with dictionary-making.”


The Century—despite having been available online as searchable images from the nice folks at Global Language, and in scanned and OCR (optical character recognition) versions at the Internet Archive and through Google Books—has been too little-known for too long. So we knew we wanted it to be a part of Wordnik in a format that was a little less archival and a little more useful, to give more people the joy of browsing through it.


We didn’t want to change the spirit of the original text, but we did want to make the Century a bit more readable. So we expanded thousands of abbreviations (such as mycol., priv., and Lett.) to their full forms (mycology, privative, and Lettish, in case you were curious). We also converted more than 240,000 pronunciations from the obsolete Century format (they had about a dozen different representations for schwa [ə]!) to the International Phonetic Alphabet.


Even though we had the entire Century keyed from scanned pages, instead of using OCR (for better accuracy) there are still some typos scattered through the text. If you see a typo in any entry, please do use the “Report a typo” link at the top of the page to let us know!


Other usability improvements are coming soon, but in the meantime, if you’d like more information about the Century Dictionary, see the Wikipedia entry. Also, in the 1996 (number 17) issue of the journal Dictionaries, published by the Dictionary Society of North America, there are a number of excellent articles celebrating the centennial of the first edition of the Century.


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