Brothers Grimm – lexicographers as well as storytellers

When you hear the names Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, you probably think about Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Rarely (especially in the English speaking world) are they associated with the huge work they’ve done while compiling the Deutsche Wörterbuch (DWB). Back then even brothers Grimm didn’t know how much time it would take to finish the dictionary. Originally, they estimated it to be 10 years. But Jacob had been working on it for 21 years before he died. Wilhelm – 24 years. They only completed the entries for letters A – E, but the work continued after their death. Overall, it took linguists 123 years to complete it.

(Image: CC0, source:

Being a lexicographer is not an easy job (and has never been). Back in the day the words and examples had to be collected “by hand” from literature and/or by conducting interviews. It is not necessarily the case anymore. Internet and other technological “miracles” made it easier to observe, study and collect the necessary information. However, if you are looking at a rare language with few native speakers that has not yet been studied and/or recorded properly, you might get a similar experience as the lexicographers in the 19th century reading tons of books, going to places, personally talking to people. Lucky for you, you have at least a recording device and don’t have to use the “pen and paper” method.

But collecting the data is only part of the problem. In order to compile a dictionary a lexicographer has to consider its structure, i.e. how a dictionary is organised, how tables or lists should be presented or what abbreviations to use. Again thanks to the technology it is much easier now to make adjustments, reorganise things, add information, especially if we are talking about online dictionaries. Just imagine yourself writing an essay by hand versus on a computer. I am pretty sure that in the first case you would have to start all over again every time you decide to change something, whereas with a computer everything can be done by simply pressing a couple of keys. The original DWB was written without much technology, but we live in the 21st century, and the dictionary found its way to the Internet. But first, let’s figure out what the DWB actually is.

What’s the DWB?

The DWB is a monolingual (i.e. written in one language) German dictionary similar in a way to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) which is considered to be one of the most reliable and complete dictionaries of present-day English with over 600,000 entries (i.e. articles about a particular word, not individual words). Both the DWB and the OED contain not only definitions of each word, but also provide their origins as well as usages in different periods of history.

One of the peculiar features of the DWB is that it was the first dictionary that included swear words (Schimpfwörter in German) – a fact that was criticised at the time. But Jacob Grimm had his reasons:

This dictionary is not an immoral book, but a scientific undertaking. Even the Bible does not lack for words that are frowned upon in fine society.

Jacob Grimm, Vorwort 1. Band, S. XXXIV , Leipzig 1854

You can look up your favourite swear word to see where it’s coming from.

The DWB online

As many other dictionaries the DWB is now accessible online. Before searching for a word, you might want to take a look at the preface and make yourself familiar with the abbreviations and the structure of the DWB.

For example, if you are not very familiar with the linguistic terminology, it might be helpful to look at the terminology section of the DWB, as highlighted in the picture.

You can refer to the orthography section if you doubt the spelling of a given word you found in the dictionary. In this section the authors explain their choice of spelling (in problematic cases) and mention the problems they had to face. Believe it or not, but even the linguists/lexicographers struggle with irregularities and inconsistencies in spelling. Read what Jacob Grimm once wrote:

Am unerträglichsten wird die unsicherheit, wenn sie in den formen desselben worts, derselben wurzel und in vollkommen ähnlichem fall vortritt. ihr zu schreiben und von der analogie wir mir dir abzuweichen, war in der sprache nicht der mindeste grund; ungebildete schreiben auch wihr, mihr, dihr oder wier, mier, dier und verfahren folgerichtig. warum soll ihm, ihn, ihnen stehn und er, es, der, dem, denen?

Jacob Grimm, Berlin 2. März 1854

(You might notice that the language of the quote seems a bit different from the modern day German. Well, it was 1854 after all.)

Take “Sprache” for illustration. In its annotation, you may find detailed information on the definition, etymology, usage etc.

The word Sprache itself looks different compared to the rest of the article, because it is the head word of the entry. On the right, there is a section called “Vernetzung” that includes words with -sprache- as their root (the most basic form of the word), e.g. Sprachorgan, Sprachenbilder, etc.

Apart from definitions, the entry provides insights into the way people used to describe and understand what “language” actually is.


You can also download the whole entry of the word you are interested in onto your computer to read it later offline. Just click on the PDF sign next to the head word.

The entry has a huge amount of information for a single word as simple as Sprache. Keep in mind that you can only see a tiny part of the entry in the screenshots. In a MS Word file this entry takes up more than 40 pages and the word count is over 16,000 words.

Why use the DWB?

When do we need such a dictionary? First of all, to study the origin of German words. It provides sources, “old” forms and examples for each word. How did a word come into being? What was its original meaning? If you ever wondered why we use modern (German) words the way we do, you can go to the DWB website and see how the words and their meanings have changed over time. For example, swear words and their uses.

Even with all the modern technology, which has made it easier to collect data for a dictionary, today’s lexicographers still have to come up with the perfect definition for every word. If you don’t believe us, just listen to what one of the U.S. American lexicographers working for Merriam-Webster has to say about one of the most difficult words to define: ‘god’.


Featured image: By Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann – SMB Digital, Public Domain (

Alisa & Yuan

Alisa & Yuan -students of the MA Applied Linguistics (University of Bonn)

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