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What is a Glossary?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A glossary is a list of specialized terms with definitions. Glossaries are commonly found at the backs of books or in software manuals, to help readers and users understand terms which may be unfamiliar. The list could be said to act like a dictionary, except that instead of being as complete as possible, it usually focuses on terms from the specific text that the reader probably does not know.

The word is derived from the Latin glossa, which means “foreign word.” The first English use of the word was recorded in 1380. To contrast a glossary with a dictionary, it may help to look at the Latin roots of “dictionary” as well. Dictio means “word,” and in Middle Latin, a dictionarium was a collection of words and phrases. Early English dictionaries focused on translation from one language into another, although in Asia, dictionaries were collections of native words with meanings and alternate spellings.

Students often use glossaries as study tools, because they quickly cover a wide range of concepts with clear, concise definitions. In a textbook with a glossary that accompanies each chapter, it can help to read the terms first to get a basic review of the concepts that will be covered, and then to read the chapter with the definitions fresh in the mind. A glossary can also be used as a building block for flashcards, as it highlights concepts that may turn up on a final.

A glossary can also be a useful tool for someone exploring something new, whether it be computers or economics. For example, someone who is not very familiar with the Internet could benefit from reading definitions of the basic terms and issues. Glossaries are also an important part of software manuals, as they provide clear, in-context definitions for the material that is being covered. Since words sometimes have multiple meanings in the English language, such a glossary can be extremely useful because it will eliminate confusion.

In books that use words and terms in foreign languages, a separate foreign language glossary may be included so that the reader can quickly look up definitions. Books with a lot of technical material like publications in the sciences may also include definitions, and some glossaries may be quite technical themselves, since they are aimed at advanced users. Most typically, the list is arranged in alphabetical order, making it easy to use.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jlmk — On Feb 13, 2011

I don't know what I would do without my computer glossary. I know my way around a computer pretty good, but it's very common for me to encounter a word that I don't know the meaning of.

I don't want to always have to ask someone else to help me when I don't understand something. I would rather learn what the words I don't understand mean, and figure things out for myself.

By heath925 — On Feb 11, 2011

I always find that when I'm reading and come across a word that I don't know, I have the tendency to want to just skip over the word. This is especially true if the word isn't that important in the general meaning of the material as a whole.

However, I realize that it's better practice to take the time and look for the word in the glossary at the end of the book. So, I'm trying to get better at not skipping words.

You might think that a word isn't that important, but it could be. Plus, it's always better to completely understand something.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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