In my previous post about logomania, I received a comment wondering about why so many of certain books are cyclopedias. That drove me to my dictionary to check on the difference between cyclopedia and encyclopedia.
The difference is there, at least in my Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, copyright 1966. The book's nowhere near wearing out; I wish I could say the same about many of the words within, which seem to wither from lack of use. Well, cyclopedia, here's your chance.
Cyclopedia is from the Greek for "a circle" and "education." The first definition is "a book dealing comprehensively with one branch of learning; as a cyclopedia of electricity." The second definition is "a book with subjects alphabetically arranged, containing an extensive account of many branches of knowledge; an encyclopedia."
Encyclopedia is from the Greek for "instruction in the circle of arts and sciences," from the general Greek words for "circle" and "education." The first definition is "The circle of arts and sciences; a general system of instruction or knowledge. (Rare.)" The second definition is "a book or set of books giving information on all branches of knowledge; generally in articles alphabetically arranged." The third definition is "a similar work giving information on one field of knowledge."
Uh-oh, that brings us back to the first definition of cyclopedia.
The words were colliding, then, even back in 1966 when this dictionary was written. But one reason I hang onto it is that the distinctions are still there inside. I can remember using a book called "Pears' Cyclopedia" for homework help when I was growing up -- it was the Pears Soap company's way of getting an ad onto customers' bookshelves years before, but it gave me what I needed for my homework. I think it was a statistic our recent almanac hadn't had room to keep.
So remember that the first definitions in dictionaries are typically the most useful ones, despite that "Rare" on the first definition of encyclopedia. I could call my favorite books about writing cyclopedias, since they "deal comprehensively with one branch of learning." Trouble is, both of the biggest and most comprehensive are labeled encyclopedias, one of the English language and one of language generally.
(Yes, both of the biggest, not two of the bigger -- they are so close in size that I would have to check page numbers to figure out my single biggest books. They are my two biggest.)
So, if you find a cyclopedia, enjoy it -- and enjoy talking about it. Can't find anyone to talk to about it? I'm right here.
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Filed under: Words Worth Defending