Schools dictionary project

How to make your own dictionary

A teacher's guide

  • This project is suitable for students in years seven to twelve and, if modified, for students in the upper primary years.
  • Words in italics appear in the glossary below.


1. Introduction

1.1 What is the project about?
1.2 Who is the project suitable for?

2. Aims

3. Getting Started

3.1 Choosing your subject
3.2 Where to look for words
3.3 When you've found a word
3.4 Storing Words

4. Putting it together

4.1 Selecting headwords
4.2 Defining headwords
4.3 Part of speech
4.4 Pronunciation
4.5 Etymology
4.6 Illustrative quotations

5. The final product

6. Have you discovered a new word?

7. How can we help?

8. Glossary

9. Discussion topics

10. Further reading


1. Introduction

The Australian National Dictionary Centre researches all aspects of Australian English, publishes dictionaries of Australian terms, and edits Oxford dictionaries with a special emphasis on Australian usage and content. The Centre is keen to encourage an interest in English as it is written and spoken in Australia, and to facilitate a better understanding of how a dictionary works.

We offer How to Make Your Own Dictionary to students and teachers with these two objectivesin mind. We hope that it provides a new way of learning about the language we Australians speak, and at the same time allows students to discover that a dictionary is much more than a useful spelling tool.

"While it is true that most readers consult a dictionary to find out how to spell a word, to discover how to pronounce it, to find out what it means, etc. - and a good dictionary must satisfy these needs - it is also true that a good dictionary is a cultural document, and should tell us something about the culture it at once reflects and serves".  (Preface, Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 1993)

1.1 What is the project about?

One of the best ways for students to understand how dictionaries work is to make one themselves. This project is designed to get students to create a dictionary on a subject of their choice, collecting words that are unique to that subject. In doing so they will conduct their own original research.

Students will:

  • collect and record words associated with their special subject
  • decide which words merit an entry in their dictionary
  • write definitions for those words
  • provide any other information that has been agreed upon for each entry, such as its pronunciation, part of speech, and etymology
  • provide each dictionary entry with examples of its use, i.e. illustrative quotations.

The project can be done by individuals, by groups within a class, or by the class as a whole.

1.2 Who is the project suitable for?

How to Make Your Own Dictionary can be tailored to suit the age and ability of students from the upper primary years to year twelve. For younger students (years five to eight) an appropriate project may be the compiling of a simple word list arising from class discussion, with each entry in the list consisting of a headword and a definition arrived at by consensus. Entries in a word list (on the subject of surfing, for example) might look like this:

barrel         The part of a breaking wave that looks like a tube.

grommet    A young person who is just learning to surf.

It is an easy step from this to add an illustrative quotation to show how the word is used:

wettie         A wetsuit worn by a surfer.   e.g. Surfers wear wetties to keep themselves warm.

For older students (years nine to twelve) who have greater research skills and the ability to work independently, a more complex project is possible. The simple word list described above can be expanded to include information about the word's history (i.e. etymology), its pronunciation and part of speech. Again, an illustrative quotation for each word (whether invented by the student or collected in the course of research) helps to show how the word is used, and adds greatly to the interest and readability of the entry.

Dictionary entries might look something like this:

barrel    (ba - ruhl)    noun   The inside of a breaking wave when it forms a tube.   e.g. He was in the barrel for 100 metres before he got dumped.
[This comes from 'barrel' meaning 'a cylindrical tube forming part of an object such as a gun or a pen']

grommet    (grom - uht)    noun   A young and inexperienced surfer.  e.g. There were two grommets on the beach watching the pro surfers.
[Origin unknown. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary has two meanings for 'grommet': 1. a metal, plastic or rubber eyelet 2. a tube passed through the eardrum in surgery. These are both small things, so perhaps beginning surfers were first called 'grommets' because they were small and insignificant.]

Careful choice of the amount and type of information included in the dictionary will determine the scope of the project.

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2. Aims

In researching this project students will

  • develop an interest in words and language
  • learn how dictionaries work
  • become familiar with the format and components of a dictionary entry
  • learn that words have a history
  • learn that language is home grown and responsive to new areas of knowledge
  • be encouraged to analyse their own use of language
  • learn that language can help create a group or cultural identity
  • recognise that we each use different kinds of language in different situations
  • learn that language reflects the values of the user speaker
  • discover that language is constantly changing

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3. Getting started

Before getting students to choose the subject of their dictionary, you may wish to look at Discussion Topics (section 9) for some ideas to help initiate a general discussion about language use.

3.1 Choosing your subject

Students are more likely to be motivated in their research efforts if the subject they choose is of special interest to them. Class discussion should quickly reveal a range of activities and interests that could provide material for a specialist dictionary.

A student who belongs to a recreational or sporting club, for instance, will use special words associated with those activities that other students may not be familiar with. Asking a student to describe the particular activity or sport in some detail will reveal a part of this vocabulary. For example:

  • an AFL player or follower will understand the words mark, torpedo punt and poster; the uninitiated won't
  • a surfer will be familiar with the meaning of grommet, wettie and clubbie
  • fans of popular music will recognise moshing, shredding and stage diving
  • computer users will know about the world-wide web, modems and downtime

The following list gives some idea of the many possible subject areas:

  • the language of a sport (e.g. netball, skateboarding, cycling, triathlon, surfing, aerobics, athletics)
  • the language of a hobby or other recreational activity (e.g. stamp collecting, model trains, dance)
  • the language of a local industry (e.g. fishing, wool, cattle, car manufacturing, mining, fruit growing and processing, wine-making)
  • the language of the flora and fauna of an area (these often have very localised common names)
  • the language of the playground, the school oval, the classroom
  • the language of clothing and current fashion
  • the language of a local gang or club
  • the language of a boarding school
  • the language of teen magazines or teenage romance novels
  • the language of video games or computers
  • the language of your family background or local community (e.g. the English spoken by Aboriginal or migrant families)
  • the language of popular music (e.g. techno, grunge, death metal, rap)
  • the language of fast food

Once students have chosen the subject of their dictionary, they will need to decide how and where they are going to find words for it.

3.2 Where to look for words

The ways in which words may be collected for the dictionary will vary according to the subject matter. Some subjects will be well documented in print; some will be more easily researched in films, video and television. Others will be difficult to find anywhere except in the speech of its users - playground or gang language will fall into this category - and in this case students will need to conduct interviews with the people involved.

Here are some of the places to start:

  • books
  • magazines
  • newspapers
  • club bulletins or newsletters
  • television programs
  • videos
  • radio programs
  • personal interviews

Most subjects will lend themselves to a variety of methods. For surfing, for example, there will be books in the school and local libraries (including autobiographies of Australian surfers), there are numerous surfing magazines, there are films and videos, and of course students can conduct interviews with people involved in surfing. There may be a local surf club bulletin or surfing reports in the newspaper or on television.

For a local industry, there may be information in the local newspapers, in the industry's newsletters, and in books on the history of the district, but it is more than likely that the primary source for words will be interviews.

Many local history societies now have excellent libraries and archives. For example, some of these libraries have early copies of local newspapers: students could do a study of unusual words which appear in such a newspaper in a particular year. Such libraries often have detailed records of industries in the area, and this could be a good source of local words for a particular industry. They often have books and pamphlets on the flora and fauna of the area, and this could be a good place to start in a study of words for your local flora and fauna.

In the mid 1980s a book called The Lifeblood of Footscray: Working Lives at the Angliss Meatworks was published by Melbourne's Living Museum of the West. It includes the personal histories of many people who had worked at the meatworks. The following is an extract from an interview reported in the book:

The hotels in Footscray were great meeting places for the old slaughtsand labourers ... They were interesting people. Characters, funny men and some pretty tough men, too, and bad men, that worked in the meat game ... No matter what sort of guys they were outside the works, they were tremendous to work with and to work for ... They were just different people, they're gone now. They don't last long in the game now. The chain killing systemhas shortened the length of a man's service ...

It was a seasonal job, purely and simply. The killing season was a September start, February she's be finished. The lambs would be cut out. Then they might reduce the number of slaughtermen down to about thirty ... Well then you front up at the gates every morning. You might've got a few odd jobs around, they called a yard gang, cleaning up around the place ...

There was constant work only in the box factory because they had contracts out. The local killing floor was always in operation, because Angliss had quite a few shops.

Elsewhere in this interview the speaker refers to solo slaughtering, which was the system whereby one man would deal with the complete carcass. In the 1930s a chain system was introduced whereby the carcass moved along an overhead conveyor or chain, and each man was required to perform only one specialised task. In the past it had taken a three year apprenticeship to become a solo slaughterman; now it took only six weeks to become a one-cut slaught. The changes led to great industrial disputes.

This short passage has a number of terms which should appear in a dictionary dealing with life at the Angliss Meatworks in the 1930s and 1940s:

box factory
chain killing system
killing floor
killing season
local killing floor
meat game
one-cut slaught
solo slaughtering
solo slaughterman
yard gang

    You will not find most of these words in a dictionary, yet they were obviously part of Australia's language history.

    If you choose to study a local industry you will soon discover that this industry has a language of its own. The language will tell you much about the workplace as a social institution.

    3.3 When you've found a word

    Write it down with the sentence in which it appears. (This can be done manually or electronically - see section 3.4 Storing words.) Capturing the word in the context of a sentence will help students arrive at the meaning of the word when they come to define it later.

    If the student has chosen to use illustrative quotations from their research in the dictionary, they will need to record brief details of where the quotation was found. For instance, if the word is found in a book, the details to note are the year of publication, the author's name, the title and page number. The quotation with attached details will look something like this:


    The locals get the sets, the grommets get the leftovers - old northern beaches saying.

    1995 F. Johnson In search of the big wave. p. 126

    If the word is found in a magazine:


    Aim for high tide surfing so there'll be enough water underneath you when you get a dusting.

    1994 Australia's Surfing Life May p.16

    In a newspaper:


    There were no surfers out there in the lineup, only lid-riders.

    1993 Sydney Morning Herald 25 January p.34

    In a televisionor radio program:


    I was a clubbie as a teenager, but I never actually surfed.

    1995 Roy Slaven on Triple J 13 January

    In a personal interview:

    big wave surfer

    Ya have to respect the big wave surfers - they're totally without fear.

    1995 Personal interview with Kylie Donovan, 14 year old surfer, 4 February

    3.4 Storing words

    Dictionary makers (or lexicographers) have traditionally used index cards to record information and this is still a convenient way to do it. Each card records a single headword, its context, and information about its source. Completed cards can be kept in alphabetical order by headword for easy reference.

    A card storing information about the word clubbie above will look like this:

    A computer can also be useful in collecting and storing this information. If students have access to a PC with Microsoft Windows, they could consider using the program Cardfile (usually in the Accessories Group) to store words, using the index card format shown above.

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    4. Putting it together

    Once students decide they have gathered enough information for their dictionary, the process of editing the raw material begins. Depending on which information the students wish to include, they will need to:

    • select the words that will merit an entry in the dictionary (these are the headwords)
    • define the headwords
    • provide a part of speech for each headword
    • provide a pronunciation for each headword
    • provide an etymology for each headword
    • choose (or invent) an illustrative quotation for each headword

    4.1 Selecting headwords

    In the course of research students will inevitably collect more headwords than will finally appear in their dictionary. At the start of the project they will be getting a feel for their topic, and to begin with they will probably collect words that seem potentially important, but which may not appear to be central when their grasp of the language of the chosen topic develops. When students have finished collecting words they will be in a better position to select headwords, which should then be arranged in alphabetical order.

    4.2 Defining headwords

    It will be useful to give students some practice at writing definitions before they begin to define their own headwords. As an exercise you might ask each member of the class to write a definition for each of the following:

    fish    grey    bogan    seven    wuss    kangaroo    mainland

    Discuss the students' definitions, and reach an agreement on the best way to define each word. Compare them with the definitions in a dictionary. Which do the class prefer?

    When defining their own headwords students will first need to find out if they have already been recorded in a dictionary. If so they should consult their own material, particularly if they have gathered the word in context, to decide if the existing definition fits their own sense of the word as they have recorded it. Students may decide to modify or rewrite the given definition in accordance with their own findings.

    4.3 Part of speech

    Providing a part of speech for each headword is a good way of showing a class that it is useful to have a basic knowledge of a system of grammar, whether traditional or functional grammar is taught to the students. As with writing definitions, some practice will be probably be necessary before the students work on their own headwords.

    The illustrative quotations they have gathered with their words will be helpful in determining how the word functions in the sentence.

    4.4 Pronunciation

    You will find the following set of symbols useful in writing pronunciations for headwords:




    a as in and, bat, cat ah as in calm, path, arm
    air as in fair, care, there aw as in law, for, sore
    ay as in play, age, face b as in bed
    ch as in chin, church, which d as in day
    e as in bed, ten, egg uh as in above, basin, correct
    ee as in meet, meat, each eer as in beer, here, fear
    er as in her, bird f as in fat, phone
    g as in get, wagon, dog h as in hat
    i as in pin, sit, is j as in jam, job, enjoy
    k as in king, cat, seek l as in leg
    m as in me n as in not
    ng as in sing, finger, thing o as in got, top, on
    oh as in most, boat, go oi as in join, voice, boy
    oo as in soon, boot, ooze oor as in tour
    ow as in cow, how, out p as in peg
    r as in red s as in sit
    sh as in shop, she, fish t as in top
    th as in thin, method, both th as in this, either, those
    u as in bun, up uu as in book, look, pull
    uy as in cry, light v as in van, river
    w as in was, wish y as in yard, yes, you
    yoo as in few, cue, beauty yoor as in cure, pure, endure
    yr as in fire, wire, spire z as in zoo, lazy, raise
    zh as in division, vision, measure    


    4.5 Etymology

    When students begin looking for the origin of a headword, their task will be easier if the word already exists in a dictionary.

    If it does not, which is likely with much informal unwritten language (of the playground, clubs, gangs and so on), students may be able to make an educated guess about the origin of a word. Some may well be obvious; for instance, the origin of the word 'wettie' meaning 'wetsuit' needs no research to tell us that it is a shortened form of 'wetsuit', with the '-ie' (sometimes spelt '-y') ending that is a familiar feature of Australian English.

    Sometimes, when dictionaries offer no help and educated guesses seem unlikely, students will have to record 'origin unknown' as their etymology.

    4.6 Illustrative quotations

    As mentioned earlier, providing illustrative quotations with each entry adds much to the interest and readability of the dictionary. Sentences which students have gathered in the course of their research, whether from reading or from interviews, will be the most interesting kind of quotation since they are real examples of language at work.

    However, it may not always be possible to gather actual examples of words in context, and some subjects may not lend themselves to this. Some students may prefer to make up their own illustrative quotations.

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    5. The final product

    Have students check each other's work as part of the editing process, to make sure that the information included in each entry is clear to other readers.

    6. Have you discovered a new word?

    Let us know. We are always keen to add new words and usages to our database for possible publication in future dictionaries. If we use your information you will be acknowledged in the next edition of The Australian National Dictionary.

    7. How can we help?

    If you have any questions, or would like some advice on your chosen topic, get in touch with the Australian National Dictionary Centre by fax, email, or snail mail.

    8. Glossary

    Australian English

    the English language as used in Australia.


    a statement of the meaning of a word.


    all of the material entered under the one headword.


    an account of the origin and history of a word.


    a brief dictionary.


    a word forming the heading of an entry in a dictionary.

    illustrative quotation

    a sentence that illustrates how a word is used in context.


    a compiler of dictionaries.


    the way in which a word is pronounced.

    part of speech

    each of the categories to which words are assigned according to their function. In traditional grammar these are: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, preposition, conjunction, interjection. Teachers who are using functional grammar in the classroom may prefer their own terms.

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    9. Discussion topics

    The following are some ideas for initiating class discussion about language use. Obviously, the age of the students will determine which exercises are suitable:

    If their dictionary does not provide the answers, click on each of the words above for more information.

    • ask students to name all the different kinds of marbles they know, and agree on a definition for each.
    • have them make a list of the synonyms they use for good and bad. What words do their parents use?
    • is the language you use among your friends different from the language you use with your family? How and why?
    • why are some words not acceptable in polite company? What makes some words swear words?
    • ask students to list the words they use to describe an attractive member of the opposite sex, or their favourite kind of music, or common playground games. Have them ask their parents (and grandparents) to list the words they used at the same age for the same things, to provide an example of changing language use.
    • get students to look through teen magazines (such as Dolly, Smash Hits and Girlfriend) and identify words used to describe teenage activities and preoccupations. Compare this vocabulary with that of a metropolitan newspaper or a publication such as The Bulletin, and note the difference in language use. (Teenage slang such as babe, fave, mega-hunk, chill out and crowd surfing will not be as commonly found in, say, the Sydney Morning Herald.) Why do these publications use different kinds of language?
    • have students look up the same word in several dictionaries. (Try if possible to include one published in the UK or USA, as well as Australia. It is often interesting to look up Australian words in dictionaries published elsewhere.) Compare the entries. Does each dictionary give exactly the same kinds of information? Note and discuss any differences.
    • get students to read the real estate pages of a newspaper. What are the most common terms used to describe the offerings for sale? Is 'home' used more often than 'house'? Is there a difference between a 'house and a 'home'? Check the meanings given for these two words in a dictionary. Do you trust some advertisements more than others? Does this have anything to do with the kind of language used in the advertisement? What kinds of words do the advertisers use to tempt you to visit the property offered for sale?
    • ask students how many words they think may have been borrowed from Australian Aboriginal languages into Australian English. (find the answer to this question in our publication Australian Aboriginal Words in English.) Have the class look up the word kangaroo in a dictionary. From what language was it borrowed? (find the answer in the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary.) Is this Aboriginal language still spoken? (find the answer in the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary.) Can we explain how a word which belonged to a tribe in far north Queensland came to the general Australian word for this animal? (find the information in Australian Aboriginal Words in English.)
    • Ask students to consult a dictionary to discover from which Aboriginal languages the following words were borrowed into Australian English:

      bunyip    boomerang     jarrah     humpy

      10. Further reading

      The page layout of Words from the West: A Glossary of Western Australian Terms (see Publications) is a possible model for your dictionary.

      In the course of your research you will need to consult a number of dictionaries. We recommend the dictionaries produced by the Australian National Dictionary Centre. Senior students will find the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) a useful tool.

      The Australian National Dictionary shows you what a historical dictionary looks like, and is the first point of reference for Australian words.

      Updated:  17 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications