Specialized dictionaries in economics and related disciplines

Economic dictionaries have a long history, dating back to Choel’s Dictionnaire Oeconomique, the first edition of which was published in 1709. Each country has her tradition: the French were particularly keen at systematizing knowledge in self-contained entries for the whole of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, German language encyclopedic works were particularly abundant between the 1830s and the 1920s, the Italians started later but produced some good dictionaries in particular after WWII, while the art of writing dictionaries in English language only became adult with Palgrave’s (before him there were only a few attempts, the best of which heavily borrowed on German and French specimen) and did not offer many further large-sized samples afterwards.

Some of these dictionaries are very large and offer rich and detailed articles (sometimes even ponderous, up to a hundred pages in size) while others are slim an offer little more than definitions. Some aim at offering ‘objective’ representations of views and concepts, while others are openly partisan. Some are aimed at students, others at researchers, or practical people, laypeople. Some dictionaries aimed at systematizing knowledge, others at supplying materials for conversation (Konversationslexikon), others still at registrering the most recent advances in the discipline. Accordingly, some entries expounded new ideas, other summarized their author’s thought, others still were brilliant surveys of the field at their time.

Dictionaries and specialized encyclopedias thus house articles written with a peculiar literary style: quasi-monographical treatises on specific concepts, almost self-contained, related to other articles by means of cross-references, distilling what is essential to the subject, supplying essential bibliographies. The history of a notion (or set of notions) as expounded in dictionary entries (or in encyclopedias of a broader scope) thus offers a very peculiar perspective. Editors can be expected to choose the best writers, among those they know and with whose ideas they feel some affinity, for discussing each particular subject. On the other hand, dictionaries (especially the most ambitious ones) almost guarantee a respectful and influential outlet for an author’s view, as they are likely to become reference texts for some time.

For historians of ideas, dictionaries can accordingly become an object of inquiry. As a whole, they offer a perspective on the mode of systematizing, spreading and communicating disciplinary knowledge. On the other hand, by tracking down specific entries through historical dictionaries one gains a perspective of how the corresponding topic has been understood at different times, in different places and within their broader context.

In this perspective, these pages offer: