Glossary is a list of words, including explanations, further explanations, or translations. The glossary can be presented as an addendum, ie as a supplement to a work or as a separate document. Glossaries were already created in the Middle Ages as collections to explain difficult words (archaisms, neologisms, foreign words, etc.), but in some cases they were also used as a means of reading (eg as an addition to the Bible).
The term is derived from the Latin glossarium, which goes back to the Greek glōssario, which can be derived from glōssa. This can be translated with tongue or language. According to the translation, the translation already refers to what is at stake: an image of language [in the form of a list of words requiring explanation]. Let us look at an example from the 17th century.
First page and first entry of an old glossary.
The above example shows the main title, which is between the book cover and the actual content, as well as the first entry of an old glossary by Henry Spelman, an English antiquarian from the year 1687. It can be seen how such a work is built: it the respective entries alphabetically match each other, ie from the first to the last letter of the alphabet.
Gloss as an explanation of a word
In antiquity, especially in Greek, Glosse was a term for a foreign word. The terms glossa, glossema and glossematum also stood for this. Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, explained this as follows: “Glossemata, that is, few common words.” The word therefore means a difficult word and is later a term for the definition of words itself.
Such glosses were often sketched at the edge of a text, explaining difficult words. Sometimes Latin terms were translated at the margins. This separates the ancient gloss from the scholie, which is an explanation for a linguistically or contentally difficult text passage.
This tradition continues in Latin- or Greek lessons. Here, individual words whose meaning was difficult were written to the edge of the text. Either according to an alphabetical order or as they appeared in the text. Such indications are also available today in foreign language teaching.
Note: This form is often referred to as a marginal, and is now relevant mainly in the linguistic debate with the Bible, other religious writings, or scientific texts to provide essential information on the understanding of the text.
Glossary as a collection
Already in the Middle Ages and in Late Antiquity, collections of difficult words were published. These often had a thematic focus and rarely formed the entire vocabulary of a linguistic community and were rather an aid to a specific subject area.
In addition, bilingual glossaries were developed parallel to these reference books – mostly in Latin and Greek. These mainly served the grammar study and should facilitate the learning of the foreign language. Such bilingual glossaries also formed the foundation of the first dictionaries, which represent the principal vocabulary of two languages.
Such bilingual works have already referred in some cases to the etymology of a word, ie the origin of the word, and have sought to derive words from similar words. In this way, they contained numerous comments on the simple translations of the respective entries.
Note: With these additional comments and further information, these first dictionaries are the basis of the later encyclopaedia, a very extensive remover. An early example is the etymologiae of Isidor of Seville, composed in some parts from existing glossaries, and tried to combine the knowledge of the Early Middle Ages.
Glossary as an addendum
Nowadays, the glossary is usually understood as an addendum, that is, as an appendix to a written work. Here, essential concepts of the main business are taken up and briefly explained or defined for the reader. Collections of certain words are more often referred to as an encyclopaedia, lexicon or dictionary, depending on their function.
Such a glossary explains the most important and complicated words of the main text and is attached to it. It is not an independent document, but is connected to the main body, since it refers to it. The entries are usually sorted alphabetically and sometimes contain references to their use in the text.
The respective entries ensure correct handling of the technical vocabulary used and thus secure the correct understanding in the respective plant. As a result, a glossary is mostly found in scientific literature and rarely in fiction. However, there are, of course, exceptions.
Short overview: The most important thing about the glossary at a glance
Already in the Middle Ages and in ancient times it was usual to explain difficult words in a text by edge notices. These explanations are referred to as marginal gaps. This resulted in collections that covered entire areas of the subject as glossaries. From this the first dictionaries and encyclopaedias developed.
Nowadays, the term mainly refers to the explanatory, point-like, alphabetical appendix to a work. As a rule, glossaries are found in scientific publications and more rarely in the literature of entertainment.