Macmillan English Dictionary – How it was Created

by Michael Rundell

MED Cover



Musicians often talk about ‘the difficult second album’ (try searching for the phrase on Google, and you’ll find thousands of examples). What they mean is that, if your first record has been a big success, people expect something even better when you make the next one – and that’s a tough challenge. When we started planning a second edition of the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED), we found ourselves in a similar position. The first edition of the dictionary, published in 2002, quickly became one of the most popular learners’ dictionaries around. So what could we do to make it even better?

We started by asking people what they liked about MED. In addition to informal conversations with teachers and students, we conducted a major survey of MED users, involving almost 2000 people, and these are the features that were most often mentioned: 

  • the clear, user-friendly layout and defining style
  • the special attention paid to the ‘core’ vocabulary of English – the 7500 words shown in red – giving learners a solid basis for understanding what they read and for writing English that is natural as well as accurate
  • the simple but effective ‘three-star’ system for showing which words are most frequent and most worth learning
  • the ‘menus’ given at more complex vocabulary items, providing a quick overview of the word’s different meanings
  • the elegantly designed CD-ROM version, with its powerful search functions and unique features (like the ability to add your own notes to a dictionary entry, or to find a word you have heard but never seen, just by knowing how it sounds)
  • the innovative website and e-magazine, which provide lesson plans, tips on using the dictionary, updates on new words and phrases, and dozens of interesting articles by language experts.

It wasn’t only teachers and students who were impressed by MED. The dictionary had also won two prestigious awards, from the English Speaking Union (HRH The Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Award, 2002) and from the British Council (Innovation Award, 2004). As both these institutions recognized, MED had achieved the difficult task of combining a strong background in linguistic theory with a down-to-earth, learner-friendly approach to language description which would help students become more independent and more confident in their use of English.

Why did we need a second edition?

People sometimes ask why we need new editions at all. If users like a dictionary, and it gives them the information they need, what’s the point in producing a new version? It’s a good question, and the first thing to say is that we didn’t change the basic philosophy of MED at all. The second edition preserves all the features that made MED so popular: the unique distinction between red and black words (or ‘productive’ and ‘receptive’ vocabulary), the simple, clear definitions, easy-to-follow but natural example sentences, helpful ‘menus’, and so on. But the world doesn’t stand still, and dictionaries have to change and improve in order to satisfy new needs. Two factors in particular are worth mentioning here:

  • first, since we’d launched MED in 2002, there had been important developments in the way people access information, and the needs, expectations and skills of language learners had changed in response to these developments
  • secondly, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ dictionary (any more than there’s a perfect car or a perfect mobile phone). We are constantly learning more about how language works and how people acquire it, so even the best dictionaries can be improved and made more relevant to the needs of their users.

Let’s look more at both these issues.

One of the words we added to the dictionary in its second edition was the verb ‘to google‘, which we defined as:

"to search for something on the Internet using the Google search engine"

This word didn’t appear in the first edition of MED – for the simple reason that very few people had heard of Google back in 2002, and even fewer had actually used it. Nowadays, it’s hard for most of us to imagine life without resources like Google. Since the beginning of the new millennium, there has been a massive change in the way people find information, book holidays, buy music and other products, and keep in touch with their friends. All of this has been made possible by the Internet.

When we started work on MED in 1998, fewer than 10% of UK households had access to the Internet. By the end of 2007, that figure had risen to well over 60%. And almost all users now have fast, broadband connections, which steadily replaced the slower ‘dial-up’ services from about 2001 onwards. In most other parts of the world, a similar story had been unfolding. In other words, the ‘coming of age’ of the Internet coincided almost exactly with the period between the first and second editions of MED. One of the changes this has brought about is that there is now a lot of information on the Web about language – with numerous online dictionaries and thesauruses – and almost all of it is free! Some people have predicted that this means the end of the road for ‘conventional’ dictionaries, but we don’t take that view at all. We see the growth of free language resources as an interesting challenge. It means we have to ensure that the information we provide is much better, and much more relevant to the needs of language learners, than anything that’s available on the Internet.

This is where our consultations with dictionary users proved so useful. As well as telling us what they liked about MED, the people who responded to our survey gave us ideas about what additional features would make the dictionary even more helpful. One of the things that emerged from the survey was that a growing number of language learners are now using English in academic and professional environments – and they need a dictionary that will support them in the tasks they have to perform. For example, the number of ‘non-native speakers’ studying in universities in English-speaking countries (or on English-medium courses in other countries) has rocketed in the last few years, and this creates a new set of needs, which include:

  • more specialist vocabulary – people who use English in the workplace, or when studying subjects like medicine, business, or information technology expect their dictionary to explain the specialist terms they encounter on a regular basis
  • more help with writing – an ability to write fluent, natural, and accurate English is an increasingly important requirement for many language learners, and a good dictionary should provide materials to help them master these skills.

As we will see later, many of the features of MED‘s second edition were specifically designed to meet both these needs. But first, it might be useful to give a brief summary of the main changes we made.

Bigger and better

First, we expanded and improved all of MED’s most popular features, including:

  • The innovative metaphor boxes, which reveal the underlying connections between the different words and phrases we use to express particular ideas or feelings. The second edition contains dozens of extra boxes of this type.

  • Synonyms and antonyms – students and teachers we talked to told us how useful this kind of information was, so we added hundreds more synonyms and antonyms.
  • The collocation boxes – another first for MED – which list the main ‘collocates’ of a headword (the words it most frequently combines with). As well as adding many extra collocation boxes – there are now over 500 – we added many more collocates to the existing boxes.

The Language Awareness pages in the middle of the book, designed to promote a better understanding of how the English language works. These were really one of the most popular features of our first edition, particularly among language teachers. The original articles can still be found on the CD-ROM, and for the second edition, we  commissioned a fresh set of fascinating essays from star authors such as Simon Greenall, Michael Hoey, Frank Boers, Scott Thornbury, and Pete Sharma.

In addition, the Macmillan English Dictionaries website continues to provide a fantastic range of teaching and learning resources, while the archive of almost 60 editions of MED Magazine forms a valuable catalogue of language-learning materials. And everything we say about the way the English language works is underpinned by our constantly improving language resources. We now have much larger language corpora – and much smarter software for analyzing them – than we had when we first published MED, and this means that the information we give about things like word frequency, phraseology, and collocation is now even more reliable.

What was new in the second edition?

Our second edition contains several thousand more words than the first MED. Some of these are words, meanings, and phrases that have entered the language in recent years. New vocabulary generally comes into use in order to meet our need to talk about things that are important to us, so you can get a good idea of the way the world is changing by looking at neologisms. New technology, for example, is developing even faster than before, and new terms have been coined to describe things that didn’t exist just a few years ago (words such as podcasting, Skype™, satnav, and link rot). Changes in lifestyle are reflected in words like work-life balance, boutique hotel, life coach, and – unfortunately – binge drinking. Politics and current affairs are always well-represented in any list of new vocabulary items, and the second edition of MED includes words like bird flu, bioterrorism, glocalization, and weapons of mass destruction. Not surprisingly, our concerns about climate change are reflected in the large number of new terms relating to environmental issues, such as carbon trading, biofuel, food miles, and microgeneration.

As well as adding lots of general new vocabulary, we also – in response to our user-survey – made the dictionary more useful for professional and academic users by adding hundreds of specialist terms. These come from a range of subject-fields, especially business and finance, science, information technology, medicine, and the arts. People studying to be doctors or nurses, for example, can look up terms like ventricle, lymphocyte, carcinoma, and synovial fluid. Similar technical vocabulary is included for many other fields as well. Take cinema, for example; if you’ve ever looked at the credits at the end of a movie and wondered what a best boy is, what job the gaffer does on a film set, or what is meant by a director’s cut, you can find the answers in MED. In another innovation, we applied ‘labels’ to indicate when a word or meaning belongs to a particular subject-field. The terms mentioned above have the labels MEDICAL or CINEMA, and you can use the ‘Advanced Search’ function on the CD-ROM to find every word or phrase in the dictionary belonging to any of these fields. (For example, there are 122 terms with the CINEMA label, 712 in the MEDICAL field, and 344 items of LEGAL terminology.)

But we know, from talking to teachers and students, that dictionary users don’t just need new words and terms – they also need advice about how to choose the ‘best’ word to express their ideas and feelings. In response to this, MED includes a special ‘Expand Your Vocabulary‘ section in the centre of the book (the pages with grey edges). English is rich in synonyms, and in this section we start from familiar, ‘basic’ words and show how you can express the same ideas in more interesting, more precise ways. It’s easy enough, for example, to say that you are surprised about something, but in some situations it might be more appropriate to say that you are taken aback or speechless, that you find something astonishing, or that something has taken you by surprise. Learning to express ideas in more varied ways is one of the things that separates intermediate learners from more advanced users of English. These 24 pages, which clearly explain how and when to use hundreds of words in the key areas of Emotions, Communication, and Movement, form a valuable resource for anyone wanting to enrich their vocabulary.

Learner corpora and writing skills

Helping learners to build their vocabulary was one of the two main goals of our second edition. The other was to give students the tools they need to become better, more confident writers. All our research into dictionary users’ needs (including our user survey) convinced us that dictionaries should do more to help students acquire writing skills, and this is an area we really focused on in the second edition.

It’s clear that there is a big demand; anyone using English in the workplace or in their studies must be able to write a report, an essay, or a dissertation in good, natural-sounding language. Becoming a good writer is a complex business, but it’s helpful to think of this in terms of two key objectives: accuracy and fluency.

Producing text which is accurate means avoiding mistakes in areas such as grammar, spelling, and the use of articles. But there is more to good writing than just being ‘correct’. It’s quite possible to write text which is free of errors, yet at the same time dull, repetitive, and lacking in naturalness. Achieving fluency is a more difficult task; a fluent writer is one who has a good command of all those aspects of language which contribute to interesting and natural-sounding text, including:

  • register
  • collocation
  • discourse organisers

Above all, fluency implies an ability to select the most appropriate ways of expressing ideas and performing common writing functions such as introducing new topics, expressing opinions, and drawing conclusions.

The big challenge for us at Macmillan was to figure out how a dictionary could help its users achieve the twin goals of accuracy and fluency. We decided that the best way to start was by comparing texts written by learners (in essays, dissertations and reports) with similar texts produced by expert native-speaker writers. The idea was that this would help us to discover those areas of the language that caused most difficulties for learners and created obstacles to their success as writers. To do this, we began a collaboration with the Centre for English Corpus Linguistics (CECL), which is based in the Université catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. CECL is the world-leading centre in the study of learner corpora. Unlike a ‘standard’ corpus of the kind dictionary-makers have used for many years, a learner corpus consists of text produced by people learning a language. The researchers at CECL have a large corpus of learners’ writing, and an enormous amount of expertise in analyzing this kind of data, so we were very fortunate to work with them.

In a two-year collaboration with CECL, we compared native and learner writing, and in this way developed a better understanding of learners’ problems. As a result, we added three major features to the second edition of MED, namely:

1. More than 100 ‘Get it Right’ boxes, which deal with common learner problems in the use of particular words. For example, corpus analysis showed us that many learners struggle with the syntax of the verb prevent, frequently using it with an infinitive, in sentences like ‘They prevented me to leave’. The correct pattern here would be ‘They prevented me from leaving’, so we use the ‘Get it right’ box to explain and correct the problem.

2. A 50-page ‘Improve your writing skills’ section in the centre of the dictionary. Here we deal especially with the major functions we all need to perform when writing an essay or similar piece of continuous text – such as comparing and contrasting, expressing opinions (or quoting what other writers have said), adding new information, and giving examples to support your arguments. The aim of these sections is to give learners a wide range of vocabulary options for performing these functions, clear explanations of when each is appropriate, and plenty of advice about common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

3. A set of exercises on the CD-ROM to support all these materials and help users practise and consolidate newly learned skills.

The really significant feature of all these materials is that they are based not on our own ideas about problems learners may have when writing, but on hard evidence from learner corpora. We believe that, with this solid research basis, we created for MED a powerful set of resources which will really help students to develop their writing skills and learn to produce accurate, well-structured, and impressive written text.

New features on the CD-ROM

The unique package of materials for improving learners’ writing skills is backed up by another key development on the dictionary’s CD-ROM edition: an electronic thesaurus. Every single word, phrase, and meaning in the dictionary has been carefully coded so that it is linked to other words of the same type. This means you can click on the thesaurus icon next to any word or meaning, and get a list of other words belonging to the same semantic set. This gives dictionary users access not only to synonyms (such as different ways of saying angry, forget, or problem) but also to topic vocabulary (such as the names of every type of tree defined in the dictionary, or all the vocabulary you need to talk about the environment). With this combination of advice about writing, and access to synonyms and topic vocabulary, users of MED have an unbeatable set of resources for producing their own written text.

In another MED innovation, the CD-ROM also provides more than 1,200 weblinks. If you want to know what the Bloomsbury Group was, what happens on April Fools’ day, where Fort Knox is (and what goes on there), or who Bridget Jones is, you can start by looking them up in the dictionary. The definitions will give you the essential information, but if you want to find out more, you can use the weblinks to connect directly to a carefully chosen website which will provide all the information you need. The Internet is full of useful encyclopedic information, but it’s sometimes hard to know which websites you can rely on – so we have done the work for you by selecting the best sources of information.

Teachers and students told us how much they appreciated the ‘Advanced Search’ functions on the original MED CD-ROM. We made these even better by adding a couple of extra  features. These include an ‘Example Sentence Search‘, which gives access to all the examples in the dictionary. Suppose you want to look in more depth at the way a particular word behaves (for example, a verb like remember or a discourse word like however) – just type your word into the Example Sentence Search, and you’ll see every example sentence in the dictionary that includes these words. Meanwhile, the ‘Extra Features Search‘ means you can quickly find every entry in the dictionary that has any of the special features such as weblinks, ‘Get it right‘ boxes, sound effects, or metaphor boxes.

The clear layout of our original CD-ROM was much admired, and for the second edition we made further improvements. Since we had published MED in 2002, the growth of Internet search engines like Google meant that people had developed new ways of finding the information they needed. The second edition CD-ROM was designed to work in ways that will look familiar to anyone who regularly uses the Internet – essentially by putting users in charge and letting them decide how much (or how little) information they want to see. This means, for example, that things like metaphor boxes, inflections, illustrations and collocations don’t clutter up the screen, but are available at the click of a button if you need them. Even better, the ‘Show More/Show Less‘ button means you can decide whether you want to see a dictionary entry in full detail (with all its example sentences and information about grammar) or just see an outline with only the definitions. For receptive purposes (when you are reading, for example) the ‘Show Less‘ option may be all you need, giving a quick overview of words, even if they have several different meanings. But when you are working on a productive task, you will probably want to ‘Show More‘. It’s up to you – and this theme of ‘personalization’ runs right through the second edition CD-ROM.

We hope you will agree that – despite the success and popularity of the first MED – it was nevertheless a good idea for us to go on making improvements. Thanks to all our consultations with teachers and students, our extensive user-survey, and the many discussions with our panel of advisors (led by Prof. Michael Hoey), we believe we produced a dictionary that meets its users’ needs even more successfully.


  • One of the latest words to appear in our Open Dictionary combines these two elements. Can you guess the word?…

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  • @lizunga @MerriamWebster @Dictionarycom @CollinsDict Oh yes! It's been in our dictionary since 2016 😏

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