Are dictionaries relevant for specialists?

Having worked as a terminologist for some 11 years and witnessing some challenges subject-field specialists have in finding the desired information in a dictionary, it’s not surprising that I have decided to write about specialists and their relation to terminography.  I have also studied this topic in my Master’s dissertation (2012) which was about the general tendency of experts in using specialized dictionaries. It was my first attempt to write about this subject, but it wasn’t the first time observing the role of specialized dictionaries in the academic life of experts.

Based on my experience, it is not occasional that a specialist cannot find a specific term in a technical dictionary, or if it is found, the definition or the semantic relations provided may not be accurate enough. This simply results in further searching for the suitable meaning or some other terminological information by multiple checking and comparison among existing reference resources.  In other words, it might be the case that most lexicographical resources do not fulfill experts’ quality and quantity expectations. A simple question might be “what do they look for that cannot be found in a single specialized dictionary?”. 

Giving answer to this question is not easy and requires some research and survey to study their terminological needs and use situations. The answer might be different even from one subject field to another, or from one language or country to another. However, there is a fact that specialists, as primary users, have a lot to acquire from a dictionary in their academic and professional works and also a lot to miss if the given terminological information doesn’t meet their expectations. Even if you have not experienced this situation, you can imagine how frustrating could be, especially when there are few options to choose and you might end up with reading various articles and books to find a simple definition for a term or its synonyms. 

Dictionary users

 There are different types of dictionary user with different characteristics among them we can recognize academics, experts, semi-experts, educators, students, interested layman, the general public, etc.

It is admitted that dictionaries are consulted in different contexts and use situations depending on the needs and target users category (Tarp, 2015). According to Function Theory of Lexicography, the information that dictionary users seek (i.e. needs) is associated with the use situations, and consequently, the information that a dictionary provides (i.e. function) should be associated with these specific situations wherein users consult a dictionary (Bergenholtz & Tarp, 2010). “The purpose of a user profile is to identify the major characteristics and lexicographic needs of the intended users, taking into account their factual and linguistic competence in an international context” (Nielsen, 2006).

Sager (1990) identifies seven types of users based on the information they look for in term banks: a) subject specialists; b) professional communication mediators such as technical writers, translators, and interpreters; c) specialist lexicographers and terminologists; d) information and documentation specialists; e) language planners; f) professional language users such as publishers, language teachers, applied linguists; and g) general users of the language. Cabré (1999) also adds “linguistic engineering” and “artificial intelligence professionals” to this list mainly because they use also terminology for machine translation, computer-assisted translation applications, and expert systems.

However, based on a general categorization we can identify three main groups of users (Fathi, 2012):

1. Experts: users with the highest level of knowledge who have no reception problem within their own fields;

2. Semi-experts: a heterogeneous group, but comparing to non-experts, with the higher level of knowledge about a specific field; i.e. experts from other related subject fields, technical translators, journalists in scientific fields, etc.;

3. Non-experts: potential dictionary users who have no knowledge about the basic theories of a specific field of study which corresponds with general understanding with the part of the population that has been through higher education.

Specialists as the primary users

During the last decade, a variety of empirical research has been carried out essentially based on the Function Theory of Lexicography to identify the appropriate content material for dictionary users. However, these studies are more likely to focus on language acquisition, knowledge acquisition, and translation. In addition, dictionaries are more developed and improved for non-experts and semi-experts. The research scarcity on the terminographical profile of specialists may pose challenging circumstances for subject-field experts (Fathi, 2014).

It is an indisputable fact that experts spend a considerable amount of time and effort on consulting specialized dictionaries and other reference resources, where unfortunately they might not have the chance to find any resource primarily aimed at them. This suggests that lexicographical resources should address the experts and their requirements in the preparation and presentation phases. It is also admitted that not only the information content given by dictionaries should address the main users’ needs but also the transmission and representation formats should be convenient to specific use situations (Fathi, 2014).

Read the prefaces!

A preface is “a preliminary statement in a book by the book’s author or editor, setting forth its purpose and scope, expressing acknowledgment of assistance from others, etc”, according to Random House Dictionary. In the preface of specialized dictionaries, the authors should describe the rationale behind the elaboration of the dictionary, its objectives, the domain of work, and finally the end-users. However, in the majority of cases, existing dictionaries either do not provide information about target users or they aim at a wide range of users from distinct categories (i.e. non-experts, semi-experts, experts). A few examples of dictionary prefaces come as follows:

A Dictionary of Physics (2015) – This fully revised and updated A-Z is an ideal introduction to the subject for anyone with an interest in physics, and it remains an indispensable reference work for students of physics and physics-related subjects (either at school or at university), and professionals.

A Dictionary of Nursing (2017) – Almost 100 helpful illustrations and tables, and 17 appendices covering the Code of Conduct 2015, the calculation of drug dosages, essential skill clusters, religion, and nursing practice, recommended alcohol intake, and much more, make this an essential reference tool for all nursing students and professionals.

Dictionary of Ecodesign: An Illustrated Reference (2010) – The first guide to the terminology of sustainable design. Written by an internationally renowned expert in the field, this illustrated dictionary provides over 1500 definitions and explanations of ecodesign terms. Providing a unique resource for the practitioner and student, this book leaves the reader free to ‘dip’ in and out of the book allowing for ‘bite-sized’ learning at their own convenience. It is an essential reference for all architects, engineers, planners and environmentalists involved in designing and planning projects and schemes in the built environment.

Dictionary of Environment and Ecology (2010) – The dictionary is designed for anyone who needs to check the meaning of an environmental or ecological term, but especially for those for whom English is an additional language.

The Sage Dictionary of Sociology (2006)Nothing about end-users!

A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1879) [accessible on Grove Music Online– It is designed for the use of Professional musicians and Amateurs alike 

These examples show some important facts about existing dictionaries. First, specialists (i.e. experts) are not addressed as the primary users and often are mentioned at the end of a list of various potential users. Second, it is assumed if a dictionary covers a wider range of users, and accordingly provides a broader range of terminological data, it may expose the higher degree of credibility. Although we cannot entirely discard certain factors, we can aver that the credibility of a reference source is not thoroughly dependent on the unabridged and comprehensive information it represents. The emphasis should be on the relevance of the presented information to the users’ needs.

The role of marketing

Dictionaries are hugely expensive to produce and in all lexicographical works, there is a pre-lexicography stage during which decision makers observe the gaps and demands. This stage is more related to the marketing procedure rather than preparation phase of the dictionaries.  However, many decisions about the price, the budget, the type of users it is destined for, an outline of the content, structures and the styling of the entries are made at this stage. According to The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography (2008), “the needs of the end-user determine the extent of the book and its content (the number of headwords, the depth of their treatment, the type of material to be included in the front and back matter, etc.)”. All of these plans and decisions are made by the Marketing Department and only after passing this stage a lexicographical project is ready to be launched.

Is it the case that the Marketing Department does not recognize specialists as the primary users of dictionaries? 



  • Bergenholtz, H.; Tarp, S. (2010). «Lexicography or terminography? The lexicographer’s point of view». In Fuertes-Olivera, Pedro A. (ed.) (2010). Specialized Dictionaries for Learners. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter,
  • preface. (n.d.) Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary. (2010). Retrieved May 24, 2017, from
  • Law, J., & Rennie, R. (Eds.). (2015). A Dictionary of Physics. OUP Oxford.
  • Martin, E. A. (Ed.). (2017). A Dictionary of Nursing. OUP Oxford.
  • Yeang, K., & Woo, L. (2010). Dictionary of ecodesign: an illustrated reference. Routledge.
  • Collin, P. (2010). Dictionary of Environment and Ecology: Over 7,000 terms clearly defined. A&C Black.
  • Bruce, S., & Yearley, S. (2006). The Sage dictionary of sociology. Sage.
  • Grove, G. (Ed.). (1879). A Dictionary of Music and Musicians:(AD 1450-1880). Macmillan.
  • Atkins, B. S., & Rundell, M. (2008). The Oxford guide to practical lexicography. Oxford University Press.
  • Sager, J. C. (1990). A practical course in terminology processing. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Tarp, S. (2015). On the disciplinary and functional status of economic lexicography. Ibérica, 29, 179-200.
  • Cabré, M. T. (1999). Terminology: Theory, methods and applications. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Fathi, B. (2012). Experts’ Needs as Primary Target Users: Evaluating Specialised Dictionaries in Communicative Circumstances. Master dissertation. IULA, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
  • Fathi, B. (2014). Experts and Specialised Lexicography: perspectives and needs. Terminàlia 9, 12-21.
  • Nielsen, S. (2006). Monolingual accounting dictionaries for EFL text production. Ibérica 12, 43-64.

Author: BesharatFathi

Terminologist, researcher, learner, teacher,...

2 thoughts on “Are dictionaries relevant for specialists?”

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