Defining issues

Andrew M. Colman discusses the specialist vocabulary of psychology and the problems of compiling a psychological dictionary.
PSYCHOLOGY emerged as an independent discipline in Germany in the 1880s and immediately began accumulating a specialised vocabulary. The boundaries of this vast lexicon are ill-defined and conjectural. One reason for this is that psychology overlaps with psychiatry, psychoanalysis, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, pharmacology, computing, optometry, ethology, genetics, statistics, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology, and has borrowed and stolen terminology from all of these fields. More than a hundred dictionaries of psychology have appeared in English since 1892, and all have included words from these cognate disciplines, in addition to purely psychological words. In retrospect, these dictionaries can be seen as reflecting, to a large extent, the times in which they appeared. The definition of the word psychology, for example, tended to emphasise mental experience in the era before the rise of behaviourism, the ‘science of behaviour’ from the end of the Second World War until the 1960s, and behaviour and cognitive processes in the most recent phase. I am the author of the latest psychological dictionary – the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (Colman, 2001). In the process of selecting headwords and writing definitions for this vast work, I made some surprising discoveries about the lexicon of psychology and the problems of compiling a dictionary.

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