The 10 Best Hardcover Dictionaries

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This wiki has been updated 30 times since it was first published in October of 2016. One of the best ways to improve your vocabulary is by frequently referring to an authoritative source. These hardcover dictionaries contain thousands of words, along with useful background materials, and are available in editions suitable for everyone from youngsters to college students to adults. In addition to basic English language varieties, we've also included some field-specific options. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.

1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

2. Merriam-Webster's Elementary Dictionary

3. American Dictionary of the English Language

Editor's Notes

April 30, 2020:

You'd think with apps and search engines that by now hardcover dictionaries would be obsolete, but that's simply not true. Even in a modern age, a physical copy is ideal for at-home reference thanks to the fact that it never requires electricity or an internet connection. There are also myriad reasons to believe that physically looking up a term helps you learn and retain it better. And since the printed dictionaries on our list come from venerable sources, you can always be sure you're getting the most reliable definitions, which is not always the case when you're searching online.

For kids, we recommend DK's My First Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Elementary Dictionary. Each has an abundance of helpful visuals and clear, concise definitions that should not confuse. Merriam-Webster's edition is also full of supplementary information on geography and word history. Be aware that with the DK version, things are extremely simplified, which makes it great for new readers. On the flip side, though, once children know the words they will likely require a more advanced dictionary, so a quick learner may grow out of it quickly.

In addition to tried and true tomes like the New Oxford American Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary, we wanted to add volumes for those practicing medicine and law, as well as people who are simply interested in those industries' terms. That's why we have Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions, and Black’s Law Dictionary, which has been updated from its 10th edition to the 11th.

For Bible study, we've included the Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Our newest addition today, the American Dictionary of the English Language, is rife with biblical sources to explain many terms, so it's excellent for studying scripture as well. For a more comprehensive selection of bible dictionaries, feel free to check out our list of those, too.

There are a handful more reasons we added the American Dictionary of the English Language to our list today. This publication is an 1828 facsimile of the original edition, which means it includes many an odd and archaic term, making it perfect for those who scrutinize old records. Reading it can help you understand documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which were written using language of that period. It's extremely extensive, with clearly presented definitions that feature comprehensive explanations using their full etymology. Meanings are explained using examples from literature, historic documents, the Bible, and other classic sources. As a lovely added touch, it sports a green vellum hardcover with a gold stamped, embossed eagle designed by Paul Revere.

Special Honors App Available for IOS and Android, the app combines a smart dictionary with an adaptive learning game that helps users master over 12,000 words with ease thanks to its sophisticated algorithms. The dictionary is written in an accessible way, with friendly explanations that are easy to remember, clever usage tips, and real-world example sentences. It's perfect for people who want to sharpen their vocabulary skills on the go.

Vintage Dictionaries While having a dictionary that's up to date is ideal for many reasons, these vintage editions from Etsy can also prove to be enlightening. Whether you're a collector of old books or would like to better understand the lexicon of a given era, there are dozens of selections to peruse. You'll find everything from children's volumes and comprehensive tomes to niche ones, from decades as diverse as the 1970s and 1890s.

4. New Oxford American Dictionary

5. Webster's New World College Dictionary

6. Black’s Law Dictionary

7. DK's My First Dictionary

8. Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions

9. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words

10. Webster's New Explorer Large Print

The Earliest Known Dictionaries

For this reason, the majority of historians don't consider it a true dictionary.

There is no doubt about it, dictionaries are an ancient invention. Currently, the oldest known bilingual dictionary is the Urra=Hubullu glossary, which dates all the way back to 2300 B.C.E. and was found in what is now modern day Syria. It is a collection of 24 clay tablets written in cuneiform, one of the world's earliest known writing systems. These lexical lists contain both Sumerian and Akkadian words and were arranged by topic rather than alphabetically, as are most current dictionaries.

In the 4th century B.C.E., Philitas of Cos wrote a tome entitled "Disorderly Words". It contained a number of rare literary words, including many used by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as technical terms from a variety of Ancient Greek dialects. It is believed to have taken the form of a lexicon, but unfortunately the work has been lost to the ages, so this cannot be confirmed. We only know of its existence because fragments of it have been quoted by later authors.

Depending on how exactly you define what a dictionary is, the oldest surviving monolingual dictionary discovered to date may be the Erya, which was compiled in China sometime between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C.E., though some of its core material may date back to the 6th century or even earlier. The author of the Erya is unknown and many believe that it is the work of multiple authors rather than a single person. These authors may include the Duke of Zhou, Confucius, and the early Han scholar Shusun Tong.

Some scholars consider the Shizhoupian, another Ancient Chinese reference, as being the earliest surviving monolingual dictionary, as it dates back to 800 B.C.E. Unlike most dictionaries however, it doesn't include definitions, and is rather a calligraphic collection of Chinese characters. For this reason, the majority of historians don't consider it a true dictionary.

Benefits Of Hard Copy Dictionaries

With the proliferation of high speed internet these days, it is easy to discount the need for a hard copy dictionary, especially when one considers the amount of information that can be accessed online in a matter of seconds. Because of this, some may be surprised to learn that hard copy dictionaries do actually offer a number of benefits over their online counterparts. Some of these benefits are obvious, such as the lack of need for electricity or the ability to use them during tests where internet-connected electronics are banned. Other benefits may be less obvious, but no less important.

Depending on which online dictionary you use, this may not be the case, especially when it comes to dictionary apps and those not associated with venerable companies.

Hard copy dictionaries are complied by teams of linguists, professional lexicographers, and competent researchers. They follow strict formats to ensure the accuracy and usefulness of the information. Depending on which online dictionary you use, this may not be the case, especially when it comes to dictionary apps and those not associated with venerable companies. With a hard copy dictionary, you can rest easy knowing the information contained within is credible.

Some people find that the meaning of a word lasts longer in their memory when they use a hard copy dictionary as opposed to looking it up online. There are number of reasons that could contribute to this. When you spend time looking up a word in a hard copy dictionary, your subconscious may place more importance on the information garnered. You may also be unconsciously preparing your mind to learn and remember the meaning, letting you gain a deeper comprehension of it. In addition, there are often related words above or below the word you are researching that can help you to understand more about it. For example, when looking up the word "globalization", you may see "global" above it and "globalize" after it, giving you some insight into its root or related concepts and adding to your overall understanding.

Hard copy dictionaries allow you to stay focused on your work better, too. It is not uncommon to get sucked down a rabbit hole of unrelated information when researching something online. In fact, there are numerous resources solely dedicated to teaching people how to stay focused when studying online as opposed to getting distracted by unrelated information, more engaging content, pop-ups, and ads. According to a study performed at the University of California, work fragmentation, as they have called getting distracted by unrelated activities, is very detrimental to your efficiency. Based on their findings, it can take as much as 20 minutes to get back to the same level of focus and efficiency as you had before the interruption.

Dictionary Usage Tips

Using a dictionary isn't exactly rocket science, but there are a few tips that can help you use it most effectively. One of the most often overlooked aspects of any dictionary is its introduction. After all, most people are looking for specific words when opening a dictionary and don't want to waste time reading an introduction that has nothing to do with their current needs. This is a mistake, however. Reading the introduction can be extremely helpful for the most efficient use of that particular dictionary. It will explain to you how the entries are arranged, as well teach you about the different abbreviations you may encounter throughout the book.

Then peruse the example sentences that illustrate common ways to use the word.

When searching for a word, it is important to read the guide words at the top of the pages, as opposed to just scanning the pages for the particular word you are looking for. These will help speed up your search so you don't spend time inspecting the wrong page only to find out you need to flip to the next one.

Once you have found the word you are looking for and read the definition, don't stop there. Reading the ancillary information can be very helpful to long-term memorization of the word's meaning. Examine the pronunciation, which will be written using American English phonemes. Next, take a moment to look at the synonyms and antonyms. Then peruse the example sentences that illustrate common ways to use the word. In addition to helping ensure you remember the meaning at a later date, it can also serve as a way to double check that you have correctly comprehended its meaning.

Gia Vescovi-Chiordi
Last updated by Gia Vescovi-Chiordi

Born in Arizona, Gia is a writer and autodidact who fled the heat of the desert for California, where she enjoys drinking beer, overanalyzing the minutiae of life, and channeling Rick Steves. After arriving in Los Angeles a decade ago, she quickly nabbed a copywriting job at a major clothing company and derived years of editing and proofreading experience from her tenure there, all while sharpening her skills further with myriad freelance projects. In her spare time, she teaches herself French and Italian, has earned an ESL teaching certificate, traveled extensively throughout Europe and the United States, and unashamedly devours television shows and books. The result of these pursuits is expertise in fashion, travel, beauty, literature, textbooks, and pop culture, in addition to whatever obsession consumes her next.

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