al-mujam-al-wasitAl-Mu’jam al-Wasīṭ is an official Arabic dictionary of Arabic Language Academy (Majma’ al-Lughah al-‘Arabiyyah) in Egypt.

When the Academy was founded in Egypt in 1932, to revive and preserve classical Arabic, part of its mission statement was to produce the first Arabic dictionary which would employ the methods of modern lexicography, and would accurately cover both the classical and the modern eras of the Arabic language.

It was recognised by the Academy, quite correctly, that the dictionaries compiled by the classical lexicographers, quite apart from not covering modern developments in Arabic, had major methodological shortcomings.

Doctor Ibrahīm Madkūr, the General Secretary of the Academy, writes: ‘There is a science to dictionaries which develops with the passage of time, and which has made great progress in the past two centuries, and has had a very clear impact on Western dictionaries, whether English, French, German or Russian.

‘The classical Arabic dictionaries, despite their vast content and diversity, can no longer meet the needs and exigencies of the modern era; their style of explanation is obscure, some of their definitions are erroneous, and the way they’re organised is confusing.’

To address these issues, the Academy began its work of producing an Arabic dictionary fit for the modern era, called Al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr. It soon became apparent however that this was an immense task, and would take many decades to complete (to date, about 5 or 6 sizeable volumes have been published, and the dictionary isn’t even half complete).

It was also recognised that only a language specialist would require such an all-encompassing dictionary. Thus, two smaller dictionaries were planned, in which the above-mentioned problems would also be addressed, but for a more limited vocabulary: Al-Mu’jam al-Wajīz for primary school students, and Al-Mu’jam al-Wasīṭ for intermediate to advanced students.

Now in its fourth edition, Al-Mu’jam al-Wasīṭ has become an invaluable resource for Arabic language students. It carefully distinguishes between classical (faṣīḥ) post-classical (muwallad) and modern (muḥdath) words. For the latter category, it also indicates which neologisms have been approved by the Academy as being legitimate extensions to the Arabic lexicon. It is thus immensely useful for both classical and modern Arabic.

There are a few shortcomings to be aware of, however. The general aim of the dictionary is to make classical Arabic, in particular, more accessible to modern day students. To achieve this, it has has not only reordered but also simplified many of the entries. For example, it often fails to distinguish between male and female plurals of adjectives.

This is easily spotted by using Lane’s Lexicon in conjunction with al-Mu’jam al-Wasīṭ. We would strongly advise that students start using this dictionary as early as possible, and get into a habit of referring to it regularly, and not become solely dependent on Arabic-English dictionaries.