Smallest Number of Words To Be Deemed A Dictionary?
April 23, 2008 1:59 PM   Subscribe

LogosFilter: Could a blog entry that contains two words and their definitions be consistent with the definition of a dictionary?

In looking up with word dictionary, I most often find something along the lines of "a collection of words.." as far as quantity, but nothing further than that besides "a selection of words" or "a list of words" which to me would be at minimum, two. Is two of something a collection? How many of something must one have before it is deemed a collection?
posted by vanoakenfold to Writing & Language (8 answers total)
How many questions are you asking?

I think you can apply a little common sense to answer these questions. A collection suggests some level of thought and selectivity—a curatorial process—in amassing the members. A matchbox full of matches could trivially be called a match collection, but…come on, really? A collection also suggests that you have more members of the set than the average joe would have lying around.

Most people know than two words. All human languages comprise more than two words. Two words doesn't even buy you a glossary, much less a dictionary. A parenthetical aside, perhaps.
posted by adamrice at 2:16 PM on April 23, 2008

I think quantity of words is less important than selection.

To wit, if your collection of words has been broadly selected from the most common words in usage, you have a dictionary. A broad selection to me connotes a large selection, and therefore a great number of words.

If your collection of words has been carefully selected from a narrow subject, text or context, you have a glossary.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:17 PM on April 23, 2008

I would think that even a single item could constitute a collection, albeit a very poor one. For example I could probably claim to have a stamp collection on the basis of owning a single stamp. Even if I'm mistaken, two is certainly a collection.

Could I suggest that the words 'dictionary' and 'collection' be added to your meagre dictionary?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:18 PM on April 23, 2008

I'm not sure, but I don't see a reason why a list can't include just a single entry.

Consider that it seems to make sense to ask for a list of sitting presidents of the U.S. (Though perhaps this request trades on an assumed ignorance of the number of current presidents.)
posted by oddman at 2:19 PM on April 23, 2008

Consistent with whose definition of a dictionary? Before it is deemed a collection by whom? As you're probably aware, there is no central English language authority which defines these things and gives objective answers to this sort of question.

Can you find a definition of "dictionary" such that a list of two words and their definitions fit the letter of that definition? Probably so.

Is a list of two words and their definitions something that most people would call a dictionary? No.

As for how many of something constitute a collection, I think that depends on how rare that thing is. Two ordinary first-class stamps do not comprise a collection. Two Inverted Jennys are a collection. IMO, of course. To the question at hand, words are not particularly rare.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:21 PM on April 23, 2008

"Dictionary" is almost always used as shorthand for "English dictionary", hence your tension with the definition that it must be large to be a dictionary. If you were to call a list of two words a dictionary, that is an incomplete description that would prompt the question "a dictionary of what?". But if you were to call it "A dictionary of slang words from the 1900s that rhyme with Orange" and it only contained two items, then I can't see that anyone would take issue with it's authenticity as a dictionary- though it be viewed (appropriately) as a somewhat humorous production :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:31 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If one were to create a dictionary for a specialised subject, then it could conceivably have a very limited number entries. To give a reductio ad absurdum example, "The English Dictionary of Likely Outcomes of a Fair Coin Toss" might have the two entries "heads" and "tails".

(I do hope you're not working up to the terrible pun that still lingers about lexicographical circles: "Cleanliness is next to godliness, but only in a very small dictionary.")
posted by scruss at 3:18 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Um, there's no hard-and-fast rule on the boundaries between what is considered a list or a glossary or a full-on dictionary. It's pretty subjective. You might as well ask at what point does a pile of sand become a heap. (There's a Wikipedia article discussing this linguistic subject somewhere, but I can't seem to find it right now.)
posted by Rhaomi at 3:28 PM on April 23, 2008

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