Unlocking the Past: A Brief History of the Glossary

Brad Miller


What is a glossary?

Many people may confuse a glossary and a dictionary. And even though I'm a linguist and should know this, I needed to look them both up to ensure I understood the differences. At their simplest, a glossary and a dictionary are both tools that help us understand the meanings of words, but they differ fundamentally in their scope and purpose.

A dictionary is meant to be comprehensive - all-encompassing. Dictionaries list words alphabetically and provide detailed definitions, usage examples, etymologies, and other information about each word. Dictionaries are designed to be authoritative references for words and their meanings in a language.

Conversely, a glossary lists terms, jargon, or specialized vocabulary used in a particular subject, field, or work. It typically provides brief definitions or explanations of the terms to help readers understand them in context. The “in context” is very important. They are intended to help readers navigate specialized language and terminology specific to a particular subject. Think of it like this:

  • A dictionary describes all of the words in a language.
  • A glossary describes words in the context of a unique topic or field.

I like to use the analogy of the difference between a general store and a specialty shop. In the general store, you will find anything and everything, but things will be mass-produced and of lesser quality. In a specialty shop, you can find the exact right item while knowing the quality is likely better. I prefer the specialty shop when I know what I’m looking for.

Where did glossaries come from?

The first dictionaries were closer to what we consider a glossary today. They weren’t meant to be exhaustive lists of all words in a language, but rather lists of words that were specialized for a particular task or to explain a particular body of work. The first written dictionaries discovered were found in modern-day Syria. They were created in 2,300 BCE. These bilingual lists of words between Sumerian and Akkadian languages were most likely used to help traders communicate with each other. Other early-day dictionaries/glossaries include:

  • The Shizhoupian (made between 700-200 BCE) was from the Western Zhou empire in modern-day China.
  • Disorderly Words by Phillitas (often called the founder of Hellenistic poetry) in Greece (written between 340-285 BCE).
    • - This one is interesting to me since Phillitas explained the meanings of some literary words that were rarely used, as well as technical and other more rarely heard dialectal terms.
  • Appolonius the Sophist wrote the oldest surviving grammar specific to Homeric texts (during the 1st Century BCE).
  • The Amrakosa was the first Sanskrit dictionary/glossary (created in the 4th Century CE).
  • The Nina and Tenrei Bansho Meigi glossaries of Chinese characters were made in Japan around 682 CE and 835 CE, respectively.
  • The Sanas Cormaic glossary of Irish words from the 9th Century CE.
  • The Divan-u Lugat’it Turk was written in the 12th Century CE to help non-Turkic Muslims learn Turkish.

There are many more examples of glossaries/dictionaries built over history. Each has had a place and purpose, primarily to educate non-experts on the terminology used by a specific group of people for a specific purpose.

The etymology of the word "glossary”

The word glossary comes from the Latin term glossarium (collection of glosses), which comes from the Greek glossarion, the diminutive of glossa (obsolete or foreign word).

Even the word’s history helps us understand that these are not commonly used words except by a specific group of people for a specific purpose.

The term clavis is sometimes used when referring to glossaries.Clavis (Latin: key) refers to the power of a glossary to unlock previously uninterpretable terms. It figuratively opens the way for understanding.

Modern-day uses of glossaries

Fast-forward to modern days and people rarely use glossaries. Right?

Actually, you may be surprised to see modern-day glossaries floating around. They are far more frequently created and used than many might believe.

When I first joined Procter & Gamble, I was overwhelmed by the different terms and acronyms.

  • Z/F/SMOT (the zero-, first-, and second-moments of truth)
  • PVPs (purpose, values, and principles)
  • NATS (North America Talent Supply - where I first started working)
  • BRM (Brand Management)
  • Just do the 80 for 20 (an allusion to the Pareto principle, suggesting "get as far as you can with as little effort as possible")

They gave me a glossary to help me onboard, but there were many terms and phrases that I still heard regularly that were never included in the glossary.

I was frustrated and honestly scared of looking like an idiot. What was I supposed to do when a VP said something that didn't make sense to my newbie's brain? I'm sure the VP would say, "ask!" But very few new employees have the confidence to speak up in those situations.

I know I didn't. And so I was left, as a linguist, to decipher the "code of P&G," as I called it.

And I know that my experience was not unique. Anyone who has ever worked in consulting, accounting, academia, marketing, law, government, or anywhere with specialized language has found or heard of a glossary to help newbies “learn the lingo.”

I know that my experience was not new either. This problem has been going around for millennia. But at the same time, the technology behind the solution to this problem - the glossary - hasn’t evolved from the earliest dictionary/glossaries in Ancient Syria, Greece, Japan, or China.

To this day, glossaries involve an “expert” writing down the terms they think are most important. This process takes time and careful consideration on the part of the expert. And because a select few individuals do it, there are inevitable adjustments, additions, and changes that are required for a glossary to be considered “done”.

Whenever a new use of an old word or phrase enters the lingo, almost certainly, the "expert" isn't going back to their glossary to update it.

Using technology to create glossaries

There have been a few attempts by computational linguists to create glossaries in more recent years. These efforts have primarily focused on scraping or mining the web for the term and its definition (ieeexplore.ieee.org and aclanthology.org are two examples).

However, the adoption of these tools or methodologies has been less-than-remarkable for whatever reason.

I hope this brief history of the glossary has been informative to you. I know that researching this article has been quite informative for me.