What's a cyclopedia, he asks?

What's a cyclopedia, he asks?
Source: pdclipart.org

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


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  • I know of 3 cyclopedias, and only Taber's is alphabetical. The other 2 have Chapter 1, Chapter 2..... But, as I noted, all deal with one realm of professional endeavor, so they are consistent with that part of the definition. On the other hand, there are legal encyclopedias, too, like Indiana Law Encyclopedia, but most of those purport to cover all areas of law rather than a specific one (Civil Procedure). Also, both legal cyclopeidas got their name at about the same time (late 1910s).

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. The word "cyclopedia" is getting to be a rare one, so I appreciated your incentive to look into it.

  • The virtue of 'cyclopedia' of course is that it has fewer letters.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    True and concise.

  • Your post brought back memories of growing up in the 1960s and 70s when many families invested in multi-volume encyclopedia from publishing houses like Britannica and Funk & Wagnalls. Have those to consult was our version of "googling" something on the internet!

  • In reply to folkloric:

    Thanks, folkloric. I remember that, too. I don't have room for the multi-volume encyclopedia we got when I was small -- I think we inherited from friends whose son went away to college. But I think the huge dictionary is my apartment-size version -- a cyclopedia of Engish words.

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