AskDefine | Define encyclopedia

Dictionary Definition

encyclopedia n : a reference work (often in several volumes) containing articles on various topics (often arranged in alphabetical order) dealing with the entire range of human knowledge or with some particular specialty [syn: cyclopedia, encyclopaedia, cyclopaedia]

User Contributed Dictionary

see encyclopaedia


Alternative spellings

  • encyclopædia
  • (chiefly British): encyclopaedia. The spelling encyclopedia is standard in American and Canadian English, accepted in Australian and International English, and is also common in British English.


From encyclopædia < (enkyklios paideia) < (enkyklios) "circular, rounded, round" < (kyklos) "circle" + (paideia) "the rearing of a child", or "education", from (paidion) "child".



  1. A comprehensive reference work with articles on a range of topics. Some encyclopedias are intended to convey general knowledge, while others focus on one discipline, subject, nationality or ethnicity. Since the 18th century, they have always been arranged in some systematic order, usually alphabetical. Encyclopedias may span several volumes (if printed), and contain illustrations, maps and statistics.


comprehensive reference with articles on a range of topic

Extensive Definition

An encyclopedia (or encyclopædia) is a comprehensive written compendium that contains information on either all branches of knowledge or a particular branch of knowledge. Encyclopedias are divided into articles with one article on each subject covered. The articles on subjects in an encyclopedia are usually accessed alphabetically by article name and can be contained in one volume or many volumes, depending on the amount of material included.


Etymology, Spelling

The word 'encyclopedia' comes from the Classical Greek (pronounced "enkyklios paideia"), literally, a "[well-]rounded education", meaning "general knowledge". Though the notion of a compendium of knowledge dates back thousands of years, the term was first used in the title of a book in 1541 by Joachimus Fortius Ringelbergius, Lucubrationes vel potius absolutissima kyklopaideia (Basel, 1541). The word encyclopaedia was first used as a noun in the title of his book by the Croatian encyclopedist Pavao Skalić in his Encyclopaedia seu orbis disciplinarum tam sacrarum quam prophanarum epistemon (Encyclopaedia, or Knowledge of the World of Disciplines, Basel, 1559). One of the oldest vernacular uses was by François Rabelais in his Pantagruel in 1532.
Several encyclopedias have names that include the suffix -p(a)edia, e.g., Banglapedia (on matters relevant for Bengal).
In British usage, the spellings encyclopedia and encyclopaedia are both current; in American usage, only the former is commonly used. The spelling encyclopædia—with the æ ligature—was frequently used in the 19th century and is increasingly rare, although it is retained in product titles such as Encyclopædia Britannica and others. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) records encyclopædia and encyclopedia as equal alternatives (in that order), and notes the æ would be obsolete except that it is preserved in works that have Latin titles. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1997–2002) features encyclopedia as the main headword and encyclopaedia as a minor variant. In addition, cyclopedia and cyclopaedia are now rarely-used shortened forms of the word originating in the 17th century.


The encyclopedia as we recognize it today was developed from the dictionary in the 18th century. A dictionary primarily focuses on words and their definitions, and typically provides limited information, analysis, or background for the word defined. While it may offer a definition, it may leave the reader still lacking in understanding the meaning or significance of a term, and how the term relates to a broader field of knowledge.
To address those needs, an encyclopedia treats each subject in more depth and conveys the most relevant accumulated knowledge on that subject or discipline, given the overall length of the particular work. An encyclopedia also often includes many maps and illustrations, as well as bibliography and statistics. Historically, both encyclopedias and dictionaries have been researched and written by well-educated, well-informed content experts.
Four major elements define an encyclopedia: its subject matter, its scope, its method of organization, and its method of production.
  • Encyclopedias can be general, containing articles on topics in every field (the English-language Encyclopædia Britannica and German Brockhaus are well-known examples). General encyclopedias often contain guides on how to do a variety of things, as well as embedded dictionaries and gazetteers. There are also encyclopedias that cover a wide variety of topics but from a particular cultural, ethnic, or national perspective, such as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia or Encyclopaedia Judaica.
  • Works of encyclopedic scope aim to convey the important accumulated knowledge for their subject domain, such as an encyclopedia of medicine, philosophy, or law. Works vary in the breadth of material and the depth of discussion, depending on the target audience. (For example, the Medical Encyclopedia produced by A.D.A.M., Inc. for the U.S. National Institutes of Health.)
  • Some systematic method of organization is essential to making an encyclopedia usable as a work of reference. There have historically been two main methods of organizing printed encyclopedias: the alphabetical method (consisting of a number of separate articles, organised in alphabetical order), or organization by hierarchical categories. The former method is today the most common by far, especially for general works. The fluidity of electronic media, however, allows new possibilities for multiple methods of organization of the same content. Further, electronic media offer previously unimaginable capabilities for search, indexing and cross reference. The epigraph from Horace on the title page of the 18th century Encyclopédie suggests the importance of the structure of an encyclopedia: "What grace may be added to commonplace matters by the power of order and connection."
  • As modern multimedia and the information age have evolved, they have had an ever-increasing effect on the collection, verification, summation, and presentation of information of all kinds. Projects such as Everything2, Encarta, h2g2 and Wikipedia are examples of new forms of the encyclopedia as information retrieval becomes simpler.
Some works titled "dictionaries" are actually similar to encyclopedias, especially those concerned with a particular field (such as the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, and Black's Law Dictionary). The Macquarie Dictionary, Australia's national dictionary, became an encyclopedic dictionary after its first edition in recognition of the use of proper nouns in common communication, and the words derived from such proper nouns.


Pliny the Elder

One of the first encyclopedic works to have survived to modern times is the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman living in the first century AD. He compiled a work of 37 chapters covering natural history, art and architecture, medicine, geography, geology and all aspects of the world about him. He stated in the preface that he had compiled 20,000 facts from 2000 different works by 100 authors, and added many others from his own experience. The work was published in 77 AD, although he probably never finished proofing the work before his untimely death in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
The scheme of his great work is vast and comprehensive, being nothing short of an compendium of learning and of art so far as they are connected with nature, or draw their materials from nature. He admits that
''My subject is a barren one - the world of nature, or in other words life; and that subject in its least elevated department, and employing either rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian words that actually have to be introduced with an apology. Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one of us who has made the same venture, nor yet one Greek who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject.
And he admits the problems of writing such a work:
It is a difficult task to give novelty to what is old, authority to what is new, brilliance to the common-place, light to the obscure, attraction to the stale, credibility to the doubtful, but nature to all things and all her properties to nature.''
Although there were earlier works of a similar nature, by Marcus Terentius Varro for example, his was the only one to survive the Dark ages. It became very popular in the Roman world, and survived, with many copies being made and distributed in the western world. It was one of the first classical manuscripts to be printed in 1469, and has remained popular ever since as a source of information on the Roman world, and especially Roman art, Roman technology and Roman engineering. It is also a recognised source for medicine, Roman art, mineralogy, zoology, botany, geology and many other topics not discussed by other classical authors. Among many interesting entries are those for the elephant and the murex snail, the much sought-after source of Tyrian purple dye.
Although his work has been criticized for the lack of candour in checking the "facts", some of his text has been confirmed by recent research, like the spectacular remains of Roman gold mines in Spain, especially at Las Medulas, which Pliny probably saw in operation while a Procurator there a few years before he compiled the encyclopedia. Although many of the mining methods are now redundant, such as hushing and fire-setting, it is Pliny who recorded them for posterity, so helping us understand their importance in a modern context. Pliny makes clear in the preface to the work that he had checked his facts by reading and comparing the works of others, as well as referring to them by name. Many such books are now lost works and are remembered by his references, much like the lost sources mentioned in the work of Vitruvius a century earlier.

Middle ages

John Harris is often credited with introducing the now-familiar alphabetic format in 1704 with his English Lexicon Technicum: Or, An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves -- to give its full title. Organized alphabetically, its content does indeed contain explanation not merely of the terms used in the arts and sciences, but of the arts and sciences themselves. Sir Isaac Newton contributed his only published work on chemistry to the second volume of 1710. Its emphasis was on science -- and conformably to the broad 18th-century understanding of the term 'science', its content extends beyond what would be called science or technology today, and includes topics from the humanities and fine arts, e.g. a substantial number from law, commerce, music, and heraldry. At about 1200 pages, its scope can be considered as more that of an encyclopedic dictionary than a true encyclopedia. Harris himself considered it a dictionary; the work is one of the first technical dictionaries in any language.
Ephraim Chambers published his Cyclopaedia in 1728. It included a broad scope of subjects, used an alphabetic arrangement, relied on many different contributors and included the innovation of cross-referencing other sections within articles. Chambers has been referred to as the father of the modern encyclopedia for this two-volume work.
A French translation of Chambers' work inspired the Encyclopédie, perhaps the most famous early encyclopedia, notable for its scope, the quality of some contributions, and its political and cultural impact in the years leading up to the French revolution. The Encyclopédie was edited by Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot and published in 17 volumes of articles, issued from 1751 to 1765, and 11 volumes of illustrations, issued from 1762 to 1772. Five volumes of supplementary material and a two volume index, supervised by other editors, were issued from 1776 to 1780 by Charles Joseph Panckoucke.
The Encyclopédie represented the essence of the French Enlightenment. The prospectus stated an ambitious goal: the Encyclopédie was to be a systematic analysis of the "order and interrelations of human knowledge." Diderot, in his Encyclopédie article of the same name, went further: "to collect all the knowledge that now lies scattered over the face of the earth, to make known its general structure to the men among we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after us," to make men not only wiser but also "more virtuous and more happy."
Realizing the inherent problems with the model of knowledge he had created, Diderot's view of his own success in writing the Encyclopédie were far from ecstatic. Diderot envisioned the perfect encyclopedia as more than the sum of its parts. In his own article on the encyclopedia, Diderot also wrote, "Were an analytical dictionary of the sciences and arts nothing more than a methodical combination of their elements, I would still ask whom it behooves to fabricate good elements." Diderot viewed the ideal encyclopedia as an index of connections. He realized that all knowledge could never be amassed in one work, but he hoped the relations among subjects could be.
The Encyclopédie in turn inspired the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica, which had a modest beginning in Scotland: the first edition, issued between 1768 and 1771, had just three hastily completed volumes - A-B, C-L, and M-Z - with a total of 2,391 pages. By 1797, when the third edition was completed, it had been expanded to 18 volumes addressing a full range of topics, with articles contributed by a range of authorities on their subjects.
The German-language Conversations-Lexikon was published at Leipzig from 1796 to 1808, in 6 volumes. Paralleling other 18th century encyclopedias, its scope was expanded beyond that of earlier publications, in an effort at comprehensiveness. It was, however, intended not for scholarly use but to provide results of research and discovery in a simple and popular form without extensive detail. This format, a contrast to the Encyclopædia Britannica, was widely imitated by later 19th century encyclopedias in Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Italy and other countries. Of the influential late-18th century and early-19th century encyclopedias, the Conversations-Lexikon is perhaps most similar in form to today's encyclopedias.
The early years of the 19th century saw a flowering of encyclopedia publishing in the United Kingdom, Europe and America. In England Rees's Cyclopaedia (1802–1819) contains an enormous amount in information about the industrial and scientific revolutions of the time. A feature of these publications is the high-quality illustrations made by engravers like Wilson Lowry of art work supplied by specialist draftsmen like John Farey, Jr. Encyclopaedias were published in Scotland, as a result of the Scottish Enlightenment, for education there was of a higher standard than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The 17-volume Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle and its supplements were published in France from 1866 to 1890.
Encyclopædia Britannica appeared in various editions throughout the century, and the growth of popular education and the Mechanics Institutes, spearheaded by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge led to the production of the Penny Cyclopaedia, as its title suggests issued in weekly numbers at a penny each like a newspaper.
In the early 20th century, the Encyclopædia Britannica reached its eleventh edition, and inexpensive encyclopedias such as Harmsworth's Encyclopaedia and Everyman's Encyclopaedia were common.

20th century

In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s saw the introduction of several large popular encyclopedias, often sold on installment plans. The best known of these were World Book and Funk and Wagnalls.
The second half of the 20th century also saw the publication of several encyclopedias that were notable for synthesizing important topics in specific fields, often by means of new works authored by significant researchers. Such encyclopedias included The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published in 1967 and now in its second edition), and Elsevier's Handbooks In Economics series. Encyclopedias of at least one volume in size exist for most if not all Academic disciplines, including, typically, such narrow topics such as bioethics and African American history.
By the late 20th century, encyclopedias were being published on CD-ROMs for use with personal computers. Microsoft's Encarta was a landmark example, as it had no print version. Articles were supplemented with video and audio files as well as numerous high-quality images. Similar encyclopedias were also being published online, and made available by subscription.
Traditional encyclopedias are written by a number of employed text writers, usually people with an academic degree, and distributed as proprietary content. Encyclopedias are essentially derivative from what has gone before, and particularly in the 19th century, copyright infringement was common among encyclopedia editors. However, modern encyclopedias are not merely larger compendia, including all that came before them. To make space for modern topics, valuable material of historic use regularly had to be discarded, at least before the advent of digital encyclopedias. Moreover, the opinions and world views of a particular generation can be observed in the encyclopedic writing of the time. For these reasons, old encyclopedias are a useful source of historical information, especially for a record of changes in science and technology. As of 2007, old encyclopedias whose copyright has expired, such as the 1911 edition of Britannica, are also the only free content encyclopedias released in print form. (In English; works such as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia which were created in the public domain exist as free content encyclopedias in other languages.)

Free encyclopedia

The concept of a new free encyclopedia began with the Interpedia proposal on Usenet in 1993, which outlined an Internet-based online encyclopedia to which anyone could submit content and that would be freely accessible. Early projects in this vein included Everything2 and Open Site. In 1999, Richard Stallman proposed the GNUPedia, an online encyclopedia which, similar to the GNU operating system, would be a "generic" resource. The concept was very similar to Interpedia, but more in line with Stallman's GNU philosophy.
It was not until Nupedia and later Wikipedia that a stable and thriving free encyclopedia project was able to be established on the Internet. The English Wikipedia became the world's largest encyclopedia in 2004 at the 300,000 article stage and by late 2005, Wikipedia had produced over two million articles in more than 80 languages with content licensed under the copyleft GNU Free Documentation License. As of July 2007, Wikipedia has over 2.0 million articles in English and well over 8 million combined in over 250 languages.

21st century

The encyclopedia's hierarchical structure and evolving nature is particularly adaptable to a disk-based or on-line computer format, and all major printed multi-subject encyclopedias had moved to this method of delivery by the end of the 20th century. Disk-based (typically DVD-ROM or CD-ROM format) publications have the advantage of being cheaply produced and easily portable. Additionally, they can include media which are impossible to store in the printed format, such as animations, audio, and video. Hyperlinking between conceptually related items is also a significant benefit. On-line encyclopedias, like Wikipedia, offer the additional advantage of being (potentially) dynamic: new information can be presented almost immediately, rather than waiting for the next release of a static format (as with a disk- or paper-based publication). Many printed encyclopedias traditionally published annual supplemental volumes ("yearbooks") to update events between editions, as a partial solution to the problem of staying up-to-date, but this of course required the reader to check both the main volumes and the supplemental volume(s). Some disk-based encyclopedias offer subscription-based access to online updates, which are then integrated with the content already on the user's hard disk in a manner not possible with a printed encyclopedia.
Information in a printed encyclopedia necessarily needs some form of hierarchical structure. Traditionally, the method employed is to present the information ordered alphabetically by the article title. However with the advent of dynamic electronic formats the need to impose a pre-determined structure is less necessary. Nonetheless, most electronic encyclopedias still offer a range of organizational strategies for the articles, such as by subject area or alphabetically.
CD-ROM and INTERNET-based encyclopedias also offer greater search abilities than printed versions. While the printed versions rely on indexes to assist in searching for topics, computer accessible versions allow searching through article text for keywords or phrases.



  • EtymologyOnline
  • Blom Phillip, Enlightening the World: Encyclopaedie, the Book that Changed the Course of History, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
  • Collison, Robert, Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages, 2nd ed. (New York, London: Hafner, 1966)
  • Darnton, Robert, The business of enlightenment : a publishing history of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1979) ISBN 0-674-08785-2
  • Kafker, Frank A. (ed.), Notable encyclopedias of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: nine predecessors of the Encyclopédie (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1981) ISBN
  • Kafker, Frank A. (ed.), Notable encyclopedias of the late eighteenth century: eleven successors of the Encyclopédie (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994) ISBN
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology; the Gunpowder Epic. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
  • Rozenzweig, Roy. "Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past." Journal of American History Volume 93, Number 1 (June, 2006): 117–46. Also available online here from the Center for History and New Media.
  • Walsh, S. Padraig, Anglo-American general encyclopedias: a historical bibliography, 1703–1967 (New York: Bowker, 1968, 270 pp.) Includes a historical bibliography, arranged alphabetically, with brief notes on the history of many encyclopedias; a chronology; indexes by editor and publisher; bibliography; and 18 pages of notes from a 1965 American Library Association symposium on encyclopedias.
  • Yeo, Richard R., Encyclopaedic visions : scientific dictionaries and enlightenment culture (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001) ISBN 0-521-65191-3

External links

encyclopedia in Afrikaans: Ensiklopedie
encyclopedia in Tosk Albanian: Enzyklopädie
encyclopedia in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Wīsdōmbōc
encyclopedia in Arabic: موسوعة
encyclopedia in Aragonese: Enziclopedia
encyclopedia in Bambara: Ansikopedi
encyclopedia in Bengali: বিশ্বকোষ
encyclopedia in Min Nan: Pek-kho-choân-su
encyclopedia in Bavarian: Enzyklopädie
encyclopedia in Bosnian: Enciklopedija
encyclopedia in Breton: Holloueziadur
encyclopedia in Bulgarian: Енциклопедия
encyclopedia in Catalan: Enciclopèdia
encyclopedia in Chuvash: Энциклопеди
encyclopedia in Cebuano: Ensiklopedya
encyclopedia in Czech: Encyklopedie
encyclopedia in Welsh: Gwyddoniadur
encyclopedia in Danish: Encyklopædi
encyclopedia in German: Enzyklopädie
encyclopedia in Dhivehi: އެކުމާފާނު
encyclopedia in Lower Sorbian: Encyklopedija
encyclopedia in Estonian: Entsüklopeedia
encyclopedia in Modern Greek (1453-): Εγκυκλοπαίδεια
encyclopedia in Spanish: Enciclopedia
encyclopedia in Esperanto: Enciklopedio
encyclopedia in Basque: Entziklopedia
encyclopedia in Persian: دانشنامه
encyclopedia in Faroese: Alfrøði
encyclopedia in French: Encyclopédie
encyclopedia in Western Frisian: Ensyklopedy
encyclopedia in Fulah: Saggitorde huuɓnunde
encyclopedia in Galician: Enciclopedia
encyclopedia in Classical Chinese: 百科全書
encyclopedia in Hakka Chinese: Pak-khô-chhiòn-sû
encyclopedia in Korean: 백과사전
encyclopedia in Hindi: विश्वज्ञानकोष
encyclopedia in Upper Sorbian: Encyklopedija
encyclopedia in Croatian: Enciklopedija
encyclopedia in Ido: Enciklopedio
encyclopedia in Iloko: Ensiklopedia
encyclopedia in Bishnupriya: বিশ্বকোষ
encyclopedia in Indonesian: Ensiklopedia
encyclopedia in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Encyclopedia
encyclopedia in Ossetian: Энциклопеди
encyclopedia in Icelandic: Alfræðirit
encyclopedia in Italian: Enciclopedia
encyclopedia in Hebrew: אנציקלופדיה
encyclopedia in Javanese: Ensiklopedhi
encyclopedia in Georgian: ენციკლოპედია
encyclopedia in Kashubian: Encyklopedijô
encyclopedia in Swahili (macrolanguage): Kamusi elezo
encyclopedia in Haitian: Ansiklopedi
encyclopedia in Kurdish: Ensîklopedî
encyclopedia in Ladino: Ansiklopedia
encyclopedia in Lak: Энциклопедия
encyclopedia in Lao: ສາລານຸກົມ
encyclopedia in Latin: Encyclopaedia
encyclopedia in Latvian: Enciklopēdija
encyclopedia in Luxembourgish: Enzyklopedie
encyclopedia in Lithuanian: Enciklopedija
encyclopedia in Limburgan: Encyclopedie
encyclopedia in Hungarian: Enciklopédia
encyclopedia in Macedonian: Енциклопедија
encyclopedia in Malayalam: വിജ്ഞാനകോശം
encyclopedia in Maltese: Enċiklopedija
encyclopedia in Malay (macrolanguage): Ensiklopedia
encyclopedia in Mongolian: Нэвтэрхий толь
encyclopedia in Dutch: Encyclopedie
encyclopedia in Dutch Low Saxon: Encyclopedie
encyclopedia in Nepali: विश्वकोष
encyclopedia in Japanese: 百科事典
encyclopedia in Norwegian: Encyklopedi
encyclopedia in Uzbek: Ensiklopediya
encyclopedia in Pushto: پوهنغونډ
encyclopedia in Low German: Nokieksel
encyclopedia in Polish: Encyklopedia
encyclopedia in Portuguese: Enciclopédia
encyclopedia in Kölsch: Nohkixel
encyclopedia in Romanian: Enciclopedie
encyclopedia in Russian: Энциклопедия
encyclopedia in Sardinian: Entziclopedia
encyclopedia in Scots: Encyclopaedia
encyclopedia in Albanian: Enciklopedia
encyclopedia in Sicilian: Nciclupidìa
encyclopedia in Simple English: Encyclopedia
encyclopedia in Silesian: Yncyklopedyjo
encyclopedia in Slovak: Encyklopédia
encyclopedia in Slovenian: Enciklopedija
encyclopedia in Serbian: Енциклопедија
encyclopedia in Serbo-Croatian: Enciklopedija
encyclopedia in Sundanese: Énsiklopédi
encyclopedia in Finnish: Tietosanakirja
encyclopedia in Swedish: Uppslagsverk
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encyclopedia in Tarantino: 'ngeclopedije
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encyclopedia in Vietnamese: Bách khoa toàn thư
encyclopedia in Tajik: Энсиклопедия
encyclopedia in Tok Pisin: Ensaiklopedia
encyclopedia in Turkish: Ansiklopedi
encyclopedia in Ukrainian: Енциклопедія
encyclopedia in Venetian: Ençiclopedia
encyclopedia in Walloon: Eciclopedeye
encyclopedia in Yiddish: ענציקלאפעדיע
encyclopedia in Contenese: 百科全書
encyclopedia in Chinese: 百科全书

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

atlas, bibliography, body of knowledge, body of learning, calendar, casebook, catalog, catalogue raisonne, city directory, classified catalog, concordance, cyclopedia, diatesseron, dictionary catalog, directory, gazetteer, harmony, index, literature, lore, materials, phone book, polyglot, publications, record book, reference book, source book, store of knowledge, studbook, system of knowledge, telephone book, telephone directory, treasury of information, work of reference
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