a reference resource which provides information about many different subjects or about one particular subject. An encyclopedia may be published as a single book, a series of books, or as a digital product such as a website or an app.
Origin and usage
Encyclopedia comes from the late Latin word ‘encyclopædia’ which was based on a misreading of a Greek term meaning ‘all-round education’. It was first used in English in 1531 in Thomas Elyot’s ‘Book of the Governor’. The spelling with ‘ae’ (or ‘æ’) is now infrequent.
One of the bookcases in my childhood home contained an encyclopedia. Not the famous Britannica, but a hardbound, ten-volume set of serious, red-covered tomes that promised to contain the answer to every question. In truth we rarely consulted them, although my siblings and I can still recite the alphabetical sequences of entries on the spines – ‘A-Ball’, ‘Balm-Calf’, and so on through to ‘Such-Zywi’ (for Żywiec, a town in south-central Poland). Such sets have been made obsolete by the internet: encyclopedias were one of the first reference resources to be electronified, first on CDs then online, for very obvious reasons of cost, space, ease of updating and, it has to be said, speed. I just looked up Żywiec in a well-known online encyclopedia to find out what the entry starting with that combination of letters could have been, and found the answer in a couple of seconds. This change has entailed losses, of course, the pleasures of serendipitous browsing chief among them; and no doubt some people hang on to dead tree encyclopedias for that reason, just as they keep old paper dictionaries.
‘That girl,’ tutted Alsana as her front door slammed, ‘swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time.’
(Zadie Smith, White Teeth)
almanac, atlas, compendium, dictionary, thesaurus