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The earliest dictionaries were glossaries of Latin words with definitions in Old English, which was spoken before 1100 A.D. It was not until 1600 that monolingual dictionaries (lists of English words with English definitions) appeared and they included only difficult words. In the 18th century dictionaries began to include common words and their meanings, and also included pronunciations, etymologies, and parts of speech. Dictionaries continued to grow to cover the entire English vocabulary, and lexicographers amassed large collections of examples of word usage. Two of the most well-known lexicographers were Samuel Johnson, who published his Dictionary in 1755 and Noah Webster, whose greatest dictionary was published in 1828. During the 20th century, dictionaries added slang, technical, and regional language. Publishers developed different types of dictionaries for specific purposes and groups, such as pocket dictionaries and medical dictionaries.

Today computers have made the work of lexicographers much easier. In research, they have access to huge databases—called corpora—of English words, rare words, example sentences, and grammatical information. In production, dictionaries are now stored in electronic databases, which can be easily updated and changed. Experts predict that by 2050 all dictionaries will be in electronic form, eliminating space considerations and allowing for the inclusion of much more information, illustrations, and audio and video features. The basic idea of a dictionary, however, is not likely to change.